I-526 Funding (copy)

Charleston County appropriated $3.16 million last week to get the I-526 project moving again. It was the first spending of local taxpayer money following the decision to resume the project. 

We live in a region that places much value on “precedent” when considering development and regulation because we fear that with one small misplaced step we could find ourselves at the bottom of a slippery slope. Well, on Feb. 12 County Council took a flying leap off that slippery slope by showing complete disregard for our informed votes and our tax dollars.

Charleston County Council members voted, 7-2, to approve $3.1 million of the half-cent sales tax to fund a project that was never on any list. On Aug. 9, 2016, County Council adopted an ordinance to “define the specific purposes and designate the projects for which the proceeds of the tax may be used.” The ordinance included the following list of transportation projects that would be covered with money brought in by the tax:

Widening S.C. Highway 41

Building a flyover at Main Road and U.S. Highway 17

Investing in bus rapid transit along Rivers Avenue

Improving roads in the growing airport area

Widening Dorchester Road

Improving intersections on James Island

Improving U.S. Highway 78 and realigning Northside Drive at Ashley Phosphate Road

Improving seven key intersections along Savannah Highway

Widening the Glenn McConnell Parkway

Improving connections and congestion on the Crosstown

Supporting CARTA

Providing access for bikes and pedestrians

Resurfacing local roads

It’s worth noting each project because these are the projects we voted on at the ballot box on Nov. 8, 2016, when we approved the half-cent sales tax. County residents voted in favor of taxing themselves a penny for every $2 they spend on purchases in Charleston County for the next 25 years because they feel these projects are so desperately needed. Not because they are desperate for County Council members to spend money on anything they please.

Just a year ago, the county said projects on the 2016 list totaled more than $2.1 billion, the total projected revenue generated from the tax. The county’s own Transportation Development Department, tasked with overseeing sales-tax projects, said in a public presentation in January 2017 that “Every penny of the 2016 sales tax referendum has been allocated.”

If every dollar of the tax has already been allocated, how can the county make new commitments?

In response to this basic question, County Council Chairman Elliott Summey said on Tuesday night that $95 million is left over from the 2004 half-cent sales tax program, which is expected to bring in $1.3 billion in 25 years. That referendum had its own list of projects, including the widening and other improvements to Johnnie Dodds Boulevard in Mount Pleasant, widening Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley and improving Harbor View Road on James Island.

Really? Where was this money last year when the county claimed it couldn’t come up with $7.5 million to complete “the pitchfork,” a road project that was designed to disperse traffic around the congested intersection of Maybank Highway and River Road on Johns Island.

In August 2018, then-Council Chairman Vic Rawl said there was no money for the pitchfork. “There is serious doubt as to whether or not competing projects are going to soak up whatever possible funding there may be for it,” Rawl told The Post and Courier. I’m confused, and I bet you are too.

I have lived on Johns Island for almost 10 years and, throughout the endless saga of I-526, I’ve always felt confident that both precedent and responsible budgeting would prevail in the end. Now, not only do I see County Council’s disregard for both budgeting and common sense, but something even more concerning: a complete disregard for the projects we voters approved with our votes for the half-cent sales tax. We are witnessing a surprising sleight of hand with funding dollars that should have us concerned.

If it’s that easy to source funding for unlisted projects, let’s put some money toward fixing flooding or, heck, why not some desperately needed affordable housing while we’re at it? Unfortunately, I’m not sure County Council can hear us from where they’re sitting comfortably at the bottom of that slippery slope.

Kate Nevin is president of Enough Pie.