Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg aided the faltering prospects of the pending half-cent sales tax referendum Thursday by formally withdrawing a plan to link the vote to the controversial I-526 project. Doing so simplifies the issue and gives the referendum a chance to pass on Nov. 8.
The proposal, jointly offered by the mayor and Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey last month, would have added four port-related rail overpasses to the project list as an inducement for the State Infrastructure Bank to support the I-526 extension from West Ashley to James Island.
But clearly the SIB isn’t interested in reviving I-526 at this point, and the Tecklenburg-Summey proposal only complicated an already tenuous issue. The overpasses had not been discussed in the run-up to the referendum, either by County Council or in the public hearings it held to gauge public sentiment.
Moreover, the State Ports Authority had already agreed to pay for them. Voters would be asking why they should pay for projects that the SPA already has committed to fund.
And County Council had already excluded the I-526 extension from the project list in August, recognizing its threat to the passage of the $2 million referendum. While there is support for the extension, it also is fiercely opposed by its critics. Council’s decision recognized that the insertion of the I-526 extension would have turned the referendum into a vote on Charleston’s most controversial road project ever.
As Mayor Tecklenburg acknowledged in his letter: “Perhaps the September 15 proposal was ambitious, if not too intricate, in its linkage of the Mark Clark Extension with other projects in the County, such as the mitigation related to the ICTF (Intermodal Container Transfer Facility). My intention was not to complicate issues.”
Another confounding aspect has been Mr. Summey’s duplicity on the 526 project, revealed in recorded discussions between the council chairman and opponents of the 526 extension. Those recordings in August 2015 and January 2016 showed Mr. Summey secretly opposed to the 526 project at a time he was publicly supporting it. Mr. Summey also had unflattering things to say about council colleagues and other public officials.
On Wednesday, Mr. Summey announced that he won’t run for the chairmanship of County Council in January. Too bad, he didn’t quit that post in anticipation of the Nov. 8 referendum. By remaining as the council’s chairman leading into the week before the referendum, Mr. Summey continues to endanger the half-cent vote. He has compromised his credibility, particularly on this issue, and can’t effectively serve as a spokesman for the half-cent plan.
That means it’s up to other County Council members to provide some clarity on the pending referendum, if they hope to regain the public confidence needed for a yes vote.
First, council needs to make it clear that it doesn’t back the Tecklenburg-Summey plan, and that no portion of the $2 billion will be used for the rail overpasses or for I-526.
For further clarity, Council should restate its plan for the half-cent sales tax revenue, providing as much specificity as possible. Council set a good precedent in September when it committed $600 million to mass transit, which would include funding for a badly needed bus rapid transit system serving Summerville, North Charleston and Charleston. And $200 million would be used to continue the county’s successful green belt program.
There are road improvements for which the half-cent referendum is badly needed, and the voters must be reassured that the proceeds will be put to good use.
Mr. Tecklenburg has taken a necessary step toward that end. Now it’s County Council’s turn to recover momentum for the sales tax vote.