Richland County Council signaled its willingness Tuesday to put a transportation sales tax on the November ballot after a public hearing packed with sign-toting, T-shirt wearing bus advocates.
Church members, union representatives, business executives and environmentalists claimed every seat in the chamber for two hours of comments. Fifty people spoke. Voters said they wanted a second chance to raise the sales tax by 1 percentage point to 8-cents-on-the-dollar to pay for better roads, bus service, greenways and bike lanes.
A handful of people objected to what they called “the goodies” included in a 20-year tax plan that would bring in $45 million to $50 million a year. They suggested a two-pronged ballot question giving voters a choice to raise a portion of a penny for public transit alone.
But in the end, the 11-member council endorsed the plan laid out by a city-county, transportation advisory committee. Only Councilman Bill Malinowski could be heard casting a “no” vote on holding a Nov. 6 referendum. The council’s final vote on the issue is scheduled for July 18.
If the measure goes on the ballot as it stands, most of the money — 71 percent — would go to build and fix roads. That’s an increase over the allotment to roads on the ballot in 2010. Then, the measure failed by about 2,200 votes.
But some speakers said the emphasis on roads detracts from efforts to develop transportation alternatives.
“More pavement equals more cars equals more congestion, which means more pollution,” Olympia resident Vi Hendley said.
Several urged the council to increase the amount devoted to public transit, saying they feared a 25 percent share for the bus system would create a “minimally adequate” transit system.
“Don’t short-change the people of Richland County,” bus rider Bob Liming said. “We need an exceptional system.”
“We don’t need a minimally adequate bus system that’s not going to attract new riders,” added Brett Bursey with the S.C. Progressive Network.
Bob Schneider, head of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority, said the plan would devote about $3.6 million less to public transit each year than the 2010 referendum.
But he assured the council that would not detract from improvements since he’s taking a different tack than his predecessor.
And a handful asked for more money to finish the Three Rivers Greenway.
Bob Guild said he crosses the river to use the riverwalk in Lexington County. “It is a shame that we haven’t completed the greenway on our side,” he said.
At least one speaker noted that in politically divisive times, it was encouraging to see a civic debate.
“I don’t think you’ll ever get to perfection, but I think it’s close enough,” Lower Richland resident Antjuan Seawright said.
Two people said they’d voted against the transportation sales tax in 2010 but had since learned more about the needs of the bus system and would plan to vote for it this time.
Before it was over, Councilman Paul Livingston suggested switching some $21 million in projects around, but it wasn’t clear how that would pan out. Members agreed to take that up in more detail at the final vote.
Council members said they were convinced money to improve roads and fund transit wouldn’t come from anywhere else, particularly from a General Assembly that hasn’t raised the gas tax in decades.
“Our state legislators have failed us,” Councilman Norman Jackson said. “They have failed to address transportation in this state.”
Said Councilman Jim Manning: “The federal government, the state government — they are not doing anything to help local government. ... We have to stand up for our citizens, for our county, and do something powerful and meaningful.”
In a separate vote, the council also agreed to spend up to $50,000 to educate voters on the referendum.
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.