Bolton: The case against the transportation penny

Associate EditorOctober 8, 2010 

Richland County citizens are split over a proposal to increase the sales tax by a penny to keep the public bus system operating and fund transportation-related projects such as road and sidewalk improvements. This is the second of two columns by Associate Editor Warren Bolton outlining arguments in support of and against the ballot measure.

WHILE THERE IS no arguing that a community the size of Columbia needs a public bus system — an expanded, much-improved one, at that — it’s hard to swallow a proposal to raise the already-too-high sales tax even higher.

The sales tax in Richland County is 7 cents on the dollar for most items; if you’re buying prepared food from a restaurant or supermarket deli, add another penny in Richland County (two pennies when it returns to its usual 2 percent at month’s end) and 2 percent in the city of Columbia. Paying 8 percent to 10 percent in sales tax is — in a word — taxing.

It’s simply not prudent in the midst of an ongoing recession to raise the sales tax.

Far too much pressure is being placed on the sales tax. And to think, the majority of the billion-plus dollars that the penny would raise over approximately 25 years would be spent on things that either are not needed or that we can do without in such a tight economy. Two-thirds of the revenue would be spent on improving roads, including widening key thoroughfares, and building sidewalks, bike paths and greenways. For sure, there are worthwhile projects on the list, but we simply can’t afford them, not now.

Officials got off track and began spreading goodies around so far and wide that people lost focus of what’s really important: We need to keep the buses up and running. While it would still be difficult, it’s more likely that voters could be convinced to bite the bullet and approve an increase of a half penny or so strictly to keep the bus system operating. And it would be a sales tax that could remain in place long term, as opposed to the current proposal that calls for the sales tax to end in about 25 years, which means the day would come when voters would be asked once again to support the bus system — and who knows what else.

Richland County officials took findings from the Richland County Transportation Study Commission, which studied the bus system as well as overall transportation, and developed their own proposal to present to voters, including a list of projects to be paid for with the additional penny tax. But there’s nothing that outlines what projects would be done when or that would keep County Council — or individual council members — from arbitrarily moving things on and off and up and down the list. While the ballot question asks voters to allow a little shy of $700 million to be spent on broad categories such as road improvements, there are no details. Essentially, county officials are saying “trust us.” And we should be able to trust our elected officials with such discretion. But can we really?

After all, these are the same people who failed to provide permanent funding for the bus system although they knew the need a decade ago. Columbia City and Richland County councils never made it a priority and never challenged the voters to help prepare for the inevitable.

As a matter of fact, local governments, knowing that their options for raising revenue for bus service were limited, spent their political capital on other things while pushing the bus system into the background. Richland County tried three times to get the local option sales tax passed, eventually succeeding in 2005. The county and the city and other municipalities instituted the 2 percent sales tax on prepared foods. Richland County also passed a $50 million bond issue for parks improvements. Water, sewer and garbage fees have all been increased as well.

Each time the councils went to the well to raise another tax or fee, they hurt the chance of voters favoring the sales tax increase for buses. No, the restaurant tax couldn’t have been used for the bus system; by state law it can only be used to pay for tourism-related projects. And, no, the tens of millions borrowed for parks couldn’t have been used either. But it’s all public money that taxpayers have to help pay in one way or another.

Many taxpayers — including many who believe we need a bus system — are declaring enough is enough even as elected leaders declare that the sales tax is the only option to save the buses. Local officials’ poor priority-setting has increased the tax burden such that many aren’t willing or able to vote “yes” on the Nov. 2 referendum on the transportation tax.

And is it really true that the only way to guarantee funding for the bus system is to pass the sales tax? Richland’s transportation study commission sure came to that conclusion, and so did County Council. But the fact is that a transportation fee applied to vehicles in the county has worked quite well in keeping the buses rolling the past few years. Why doesn’t County Council simply continue that fee — increasing it if necessary — instead of allowing it to end, as planned?

Yes, we’d lose out on the proposed road widenings and bike paths. But frankly, widening already-congested roads would counteract one of the goals of expanding the buses out into the suburbs. One reason for supporting an expanded bus system is to try to get drivers to park their cars and ride, easing traffic and pollution. The one thing widening roads does for sure is to invite more traffic.

The Transportation Study Commission, which held public hearings across the county and fashioned what it believed to be a reasonable response to citizens’ reaction, determined that with the county projected to continue growing over the next 20 to 30 years and with Columbia fast developing, and the University of South Carolina’s research campus expected to increase interest in the Midlands, it was wise to move forward now to address roads, transit, green space and pedestrian issues. But that was before a crippling recession hit our community and communities across the country.

While the commission’s findings might have made sense a couple years ago, a lot has changed. Development has slowed in Columbia, Innovista has crawled along, and many people are out of work and struggling to make ends meet. This is no time to raise the sales tax to pay for uncertain growth. Yes, things are going to turn around one day, but we don’t know exactly when, or to what degree. In today’s environment, we simply can’t pay for anything that isn’t absolutely necessary.

The only thing that is absolutely necessary is the bus system. Unfortunately, voters don’t have the option of voting for just the bus system. It’s an all-or-nothing scenario. Want to keep the buses operating? You’ll have to pony up to widen Hard Scrabble Road and provide money for Innovista projects and build sidewalks as well. This something-for-everybody, chicken-in-every-pot approach is overreaching.

The real need here — saving the bus system — has gotten lost in the shuffle. And that’s why the penny will lose on Nov. 2.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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