Charleston County voters won’t be asked to impose another sales tax on themselves this November, after all. Instead, County Council decided merely to begin discussing the possibility of a 2014 ballot question for a half-cent sales tax primarily for transportation projects.
Certainly, that’s better than pushing through a last-minute referendum this fall, as initially suggested by Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey.
Mr. Summey now says his intention was solely to begin a conversation on the issue.
So let’s start the conversation with the state Department of Transportation and the local legislative delegation. Many of the projects listed by Mr. Summey should be the responsibility of the DOT, not local taxpayers.
Road construction and maintenance are why we have a DOT, and why the state collects gas taxes. If the agency is not up to the job, or if it truly lacks the funding to perform its responsibilities, the Legislature should be willing to make the necessary changes.
Indeed, there was a reform plan for the DOT and its governing highway commission before the Legislature in its recent session. And was it ever needed.
The commission continues to demonstrate its unwillingness to attend to priority projects as intended in the 2007 reform of the transportation agency. Instead, the commission has fallen back into its old pattern of picking projects on the basis of politics.
Of the five projects approved for a $350 million bond issue last year by the DOT, only one was a ranked priority — widening a portion of I-26. Following widespread criticism, the commission put the plan on hold, but didn’t kill it.
While the highway commission was spinning its grandiose plans to use up most of the agency’s remaining borrowing capacity, the DOT was unable to keep up its payments to contractors.
Even so, proponents of reform measures were unable to get the Legislature to move on them.
Nor has the Legislature demonstrated any inclination to raise the gas tax, which is one of the lowest in the nation. It hasn’t been increased in more than two decades, despite the agency’s apparent lack of adequate revenue. The gas tax has the benefit of being a user fee.
Motorists who use the roads should pay for improvements and upkeep. Relying on a gas tax for that purpose is a fairer and more logical system than expecting local residents to keep levying increasing amounts of sales tax upon themselves so they can drive on decent roads.
In Charleston, there already is a 6 percent sales tax imposed by the state, plus a 1 percent local option sales tax, plus a 1 percent school building tax, plus a half-cent sales tax for roads, mass transit and green space. The county has the second highest sales tax in the state.
By a 5-4 vote Thursday, County Council agreed to take the issue to the people, to find out what they want in roads and mass transit, and make a decision about a public referendum based on that.
Maybe that will generate some insight about transportation needs in the county. Maybe elected officials will actually listen. There have been plenty of instances where the public has been ignored because their views weren’t shared by the politicians. Remember the opposition expressed to the I-526 extension in five public hearings in 2010?
Nothing in the county’s initiative relieves the DOT of the responsibility to fulfill its role as the lead agency to fund essential road and bridge projects.
That should be the message to the Legislature, which is responsible for matters like the gas tax and the governance structure of the DOT.
And it should be the message to the state highway commission, which would rather build monumental projects than actually fix what first needs fixing.