Will voters open wallets to fix our traffic mess?

Grace Beahm/File Building an overpass on Main Road, where it now floods, is just one of several projects that a new half-cent sales tax could pay for. Above, Charleston County Deputy Thomas Junkin directs cars leaving Johns Island in September.

In a move that may affect the future of Interstate 526, Charleston County voters could be asked next fall if they want an additional half-percent sales tax increase for new roads and other projects.

The proposed increase would come on top of the half-cent transportation sales tax voters approved a decade ago — and mean shoppers and diners in the county would start paying 1 percent total to address the county’s infrastructure.

At this point, there are more questions than answers, and some of the biggest questions are these:

What will state lawmakers do next year to address the state’s crumbling roads and dams ruined from this fall’s flooding — and will any such statewide effort be ambitious enough to cause local officials to back off from seeking their own tax hike?

Can county officials and local mayors agree on a list of specific projects they think a majority of their voters would rally around? Those discussions have quietly begun, and 526 could prove to be a sticking point.

And lastly, will the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce agree to run the campaign for it to pass? The chamber played a key role in 2004, when county voters approved the original half-cent sales tax.

That current tax is expected to raise $1.3 billion before it expires by 2030. It already has helped pay for major projects, such as the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, widening U.S. Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant and extending the Palmetto Commerce Parkway.

It also has paid for several smaller projects, from repaving streets to adding sidewalks and bikeways — as well as raising local money for the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority and for new parks and land-conservation deals.

County Council Chairman Elliott Summey said the county’s staff recently was asked to prepare information for a possible sales tax referendum next year.

“The problem we’ve got down in the Lowcountry — it’s not just Charleston, it’s Berkeley, Dorchester and Georgetown — is we’ve got all these people moving here,” Summey said. “We need new roads. ... We’ve got to do something.”

Summey said he thinks the county managed its first half-cent sales tax well and was able to leverage other dollars. He said the sales tax is more popular because it’s also paid by visitors.

The Chamber of Commerce has been talking with county officials about a possible referendum, Chief Advancement Officer Mary Graham said.

The key will be detailing where the money will go, she said, adding that such details helped the Charleston County School District handily win school building referendums in 2010 and 2014.

“Voters tend to vote for those kinds of issue when there’s a very specific set of projects and they know exactly what they’re going to get,” she said.

Voters in Mount Pleasant recently rejected a tax increase for recreation upgrades in a referendum that some complained did not provide enough specifics on the future spending.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, Elliot Summey’s father, said he would support another half-cent sales tax referendum “as long as they can show me where North Charleston is going to get an appropriate share of the funds.”

Keith Summey said most big road improvements in the last several years stemmed from the county’s first half-cent tax, adding, “The state hasn’t done a lot.”

Some possible projects could prove popular, such as widening S.C. Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant, building an overpass on the flood-prone stretch of Main Road between U.S. Highway 17 and Johns Island, improving roads around North Charleston’s Boeing plant, creating a “pitchfork” road network where Maybank Highway enters Johns Island and extending the Glenn McConnell Parkway up to Interstate 26, near Volvo’s future plant.

Keith Summey said North Charleston also wants to see Dorchester, Ashley Phosphate and Ladson roads improved, but there’s currently little to no money available for them.

If referendum talk moves forward, a big question will be whether the county will allot more money to finish Interstate 526 — a controversial project bogged down by the prospect of legal challenges and a rising price tag.

While the State Infrastructure Bank has set aside $420 million for the project, the cost is now projected at $725 million.

Graham said I-526 remains on top of the chamber’s priority list, “and we’re not opposed at all to closing that (funding) gap with that additional half-cent. ... The timing seems right for that to be part of this discussion.”

Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page said she has talked to Elliott Summey and expects another referendum.

“Obviously, we all need improved infrastructure,” she said. “Everyone knows we have challenges with funding for infrastructure.”

But Page said she expects state lawmakers to address that funding next year, so talk of another local half-cent might quiet if Columbia makes a significant move to address the state’s roads and bridges. “None of us are for excessive taxation,” Page said.

But Graham said that even if the state were to pass a significant infrastructure funding plan, there still would be a need for an additional half-cent “because then we can leverage the local dollar to get more state and federal dollars.”

It’s still early: County Council won’t have to make a decision until the summer.

‘We’re at a critical point,” Elliott Summey said. “If we’re not planning and bonding now, we’re going to wake up and say, ‘Oh (expletive deleted), do we have a problem.”

And even if local officials rally around a new half-cent plan, voters might be slower to come around.

It was a bumpy ride to get the first half-cent approved. County voters initially rejected it in 2000, and while they passed it narrowly in 2002, the S.C. Supreme Court threw out the result because it found the ballot language misleading. It finally passed in 2004.

Reach Robert Behre at (843) 937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.

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