It is unfortunate that the half-cent sales tax and the Mark Clark project were being discussed at the same time in the last six months.
As I have said many times, each needs to be considered separately. The half-penny sales tax program Charleston County Council passed this summer, which is on the November ballot, was the result of careful study of our road and transit needs and did not include funding for the Mark Clark.
The reason it could not include the Mark Clark was that those negotiations to complete or fund the completion had not been resolved, and remain so. The Mark Clark is a three-party contract with the county, the Infrastructure Bank and the S.C. Department of Transportation. That funding is a contractual matter and has nothing to do with the half-cent sales tax.
The half-cent tax program specifically includes funding for named roads, mass transit, and the Greenbelt program.
The roads and drainage component includes approximately $900 million to fund much needed improvements to 17 South/Main Road, widening of the Glenn McConnell Parkway, intersection improvements for Savannah Highway and West Ashley, Dorchester Road widening, airport area road improvements, widening Highway 78, and widening Highway 41 to the new bridge over the Wando River in Mount Pleasant, with improvements at 17/41 intersection.
These are much-needed projects to improve mobility for the entire county. The mass transit component includes a bus rapid transit system designed to help relieve I-26 congestion, capital improvements for CARTA buses, and improved bus service, all at a cost of approximately $600 million.
The last component is $210 million for greenbelt preservation to complement those sites already conserved in Charleston County.
Critics claim council may have other “agendas” than fixing our road and transportation projects. That is not true. Council is committed to seeing these projects completed. The best way to gauge council’s promise to complete these projects is to examine past performance.
In 2004, voters agreed to add a half cent sales tax on purchases made for 25 years or $1.3 billion; whichever came first. We are now 12 years into that program that included roads, mass transit and greenbelt preservation. Named projects included Johnnie Dodds Boulevard, the Glenn McConnell/Bees Ferry intersection, Folly Road/Maybank Highway, Harbor View Road, the James Island Connector Loop, U.S. 17/Wesley Drive, Palmetto Commerce Parkway, Folly/Camp Road, Bees Ferry Road, Future/Northside Drive, Maybank Highway, Bee Street, plus mass transit and greenbelt preservation.
All of the above named projects are complete or under construction except for two; Maybank Highway and the James Island Connector Loop. The Maybank Highway project has undergone changes following extensive public input, and regulatory scrutiny is scheduled to begin in early 2017. The James Island Connector Loop was not built after analysis showed it would not provide traffic relief. County staff has managed these projects well and has been awarded $43.9 million in additional funding which has stretched our road dollars further.
In addition to the named road projects, each year staff makes plans for additional improvements. Each year council has approved $10.5 million for county needs, which include $4 million for resurfacing, $2 million for local paving, $1 million for drainage, $1 million for public works, $500,000 for bike/pedestrian projects, and $2 million for intersection improvements. By managing our tax dollars, and acquiring additional funding, the county has been able to complete 185 such “allocation” projects. These include projects such as the sidewalk along Highway 171 from Charles Towne Landing to Northbridge Park; additional turning lanes on Johns Island at River Road and Maybank Highway, the Ben Sawyer Causeway multi-use path, and the paving of New Road in Ravenel.
One ongoing allocation project is the realignment and adding of turning lanes to the intersection of Highway 61 and 7. After planning, public meetings, permitting, and right-of-way acquisition, construction is ready to begin this year.
So in addition to the named projects, we are funding and completing additional projects each year. We plan to complete more allocation projects as needed each year over the remaining life of the sales tax. This allows staff to identify and make improvements according to need. The second half penny will continue that program.
Worries that council will not complete these projects as proposed are unfounded for several reasons. The first is that we have voted and given our word to the voters. Most of the current council was not serving when the first half cent was approved. But, we have worked with staff, municipalities, and state and federal regulators to complete the named projects the voters approved.
Second, as soon as the tax is approved, county road staff will begin working to secure the necessary engineering, permitting and right of way, and will hold meetings for input from the public for each project, just as we did last time. This is expensive and that is why the second question is on the ballot.
That provides the funding to pay for the engineering, planning, and permitting so that it can begin immediately. This allows us to waste no time getting the projects completed in as timely manner as possible.
The public meetings for each project can be held once this has been completed. Often this leads to new ideas and can extend the time needed for completion. The process of submitting changes can lead to more engineering and permitting. And obtaining approval from municipalities can extend the length of time needed to complete the projects.
Council members change, but staff mostly remains and since each project is already in process. That will help to ensure that each is carried through. When each project is finally ready to construct, council holds public hearings before the money to complete them is approved.
Some people say we are the victims of our own success; strong job growth in manufacturing, local business growth, and people moving to Charleston in record numbers are a reflection both of our success and quality of life. The downside is we are not getting much help from Columbia; maybe in the future that will change.
However, these projects are needed now, and it is important that we get started working on them as quickly as possible. Council will work to make sure we get these projects completed as quickly and efficiently as possible. Our record speaks for itself; let’s get them started now instead of having to wait two or four years from now when it will be more expensive and harder to work around.
Please vote to complete the penny.
Herb Sass is a member of Charleston County Council.