RICHLAND SALES TAX

Penny tax touted as way to rescue Richland’s roads, bus system

dhinshaw@thestate.comSeptember 30, 2012 

A pedestrian walks across the Broad River Bridge Wednesday. Transportation officials were forced to close the bridge after heavy rains caused a piece of construction equipment sitting on a barge next to the Broad River to shift.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • Getting there • In the past decade, the number of registered vehicles in Richland County increased 31 percent, to 310,513 this year. • On a nice weekend day, as many as 450 people an hour flock to riverfront walking trails in Cayce-West Columbia. • Each of 17 routes on the bus system carries an average of 20 passengers an hour. SOURCE: S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, Mike Dawson with the River Alliance, Bob Schneider with Veolia Transportation
  • The penny sales tax: A closer look A local sales tax, if approved, is expected to bring in $50 million a year for up to 22 years.
  • How it works The additional penny-on-the-dollar tax, to 8 cents on the dollar, would apply in all areas of Richland County. • It would be charged on most purchases, including groceries. Among the exceptions are food-stamp purchases, prescription drugs and school books. • Collections would begin May 1, 2013. • By law, the tax would end in 22 years or once it generated $1.07 billion, whichever came first. If voters approve the tax Nov. 6, Columbia City Council pledged to remove the 2 percent franchise fee it charges city residents on their utility bills; the fee now helps fund the bus system. Richland County Council already removed the yearly transit fee appearing on property-tax bills. • The last time the sales tax was increased was in June 2007, by the state. How the tax breaks down • $29.8 million a year (63 percent) to widen and improve roads • $13.7 million a year (29 percent) to expand bus service • $3.7 million a year (8 percent) to build sidewalks, bike lanes and walking trails through natural areas. ROADS Dozens of road-widening and improvement projects totaling 46 miles of roadway have been identified for voters. They tend to favor congested Northeast Richland and Lower Richland, where public services have lagged. In the Northeast, big-dollar projects include the widening of Clemson, Hard Scrabble and Spears Creek Church roads. The largest single project on the list is the Shop Road Extension, a new road extending into Lower Richland. In addition, the county intends to widen Pineview and Atlas roads. Online: Click on the penny icon at thestate.com/election to view the list of projects BUSES The city-county bus system would get $301 million, money the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority would use to operate the system until 2035. While expanded routes have not been determined, some early goals include: • Improving frequency, with most bus lines running every 30 minutes and many pushing toward 15-minute intervals. • Buying 20-25 small buses for efficiency. • Installing about 50 shelters, selecting locations to serve the most riders. • Investing in new technology, such as solar-panel information boards, to update passengers on arrivals and departures. Online: Click on the penny icon at thestate.com/election to view more on buses. BIKEWAYS, SIDEWALKS, GREENWAYS Most of the $80.9 million would go to add roughly 49 miles of sidewalks. The plan also would add 120 miles of bikeways and 31 miles of nature trails, or greenways. Most of the money would be spent in the city of Columbia. At $7.9 million, the largest single expenditure would build a 3-mile Saluda Riverwalk, passing alongside the zoo and extending to an elevated pedestrian bridge over a rocky set of islands before connecting with the current Riverfront Park. At $2.7 million, the largest sidewalk project would serve Two Notch Road, from Alpine Road to Spears Creek Church Road. And the most expensive bike lane would run along Blossom Street, from Huger Street to Assembly Street. Cost: $2.6 million.
  • The state of transportation State government owns 66 percent of the road system in South Carolina, mostly funded with the gasoline tax. It is No. 4 in the country in the miles of roadway owned, surpassing all but Texas, North Carolina and Virginia. Yet the gasoline tax that funds the state road system is among the lowest in the country — fourth from the bottom. The General Assembly hasn’t raised the gas tax since 1987, when the late Carroll Campbell was governor. The state returns about 16 percent of its gas-tax revenues to local governments, about $68 million a year. Still, there are far more road needs than money. The S.C. Department of Transportation lists statewide road needs of $48.3 billion through the year 2030, and anticipates $19 billion in funding during that same period — leaving a shortfall of $29.3 billion. How does that play out here? Historically, the state has provided Richland County $1.4 million a year to resurface suburban roads and $1 million a year to pave dirt roads. But paving all the county’s 236 miles of dirt roads alone would cost an estimated $153.4 million. SOURCE: S.C. Department of Transportation, Richland County

  • About this series

    On Nov. 6, voters in Richland County decide whether to increase the sales tax to improve roads, expand bus service and add sidewalks, bike lanes and nature trails. The State newspaper is examining details of the proposal, with coverage each Sunday and Monday through October.

In the two years since Richland County voters defeated a penny sales tax to improve transportation, little has changed.

• Only one road project – the realignment of Lake Murray Boulevard and Parkridge Road – has been completed from the county’s 2010 work list.

Unreliable funding left bus riders scrambling, with routes reduced by 40 percent and with Sunday and weekday evening services eliminated.

• And highway-safety officials have expressed alarm over a statewide spike in deaths involving pedestrians and bicyclists. Richland County followed the trend, with nine pedestrians killed so far this year, triple the number from 2008.

Those are some of the reasons voters in Columbia and Richland County are being asked again to consider a sales-tax increase to improve roads, expand bus service and build sidewalks, bike lanes and nature trails.

County leaders say that if voters don’t step up to solve a looming crisis in the county’s transportation system, no one will do it for them.

Not the state, with a Legislature that imposes one of the lowest gasoline taxes in the nation.

Not the federal government, which is trying to rein in funding grants to states during tight economic times.

Opponents of the penny increase agree that there are needs, but say the economy remains unstable and the county should offer a smaller increase – solely for buses, some would argue.

Still, a penny sales tax is the route taken in recent years by voters in at least eight other S.C. counties – Charleston, Dorchester, Beaufort, Berkeley and Horry, near the fast-growing coast, along with Aiken, Florence and York. Even fiscally conservative Lexington County will consider putting a transportation sales tax question to voters in 2014.

Rick Todd, president of the S.C. Trucking Association, said the federal government is reluctant to fund transportation at past levels and state government increasingly targets money only for roads and bridges with statewide significance.

That pushes roads that serve cities and counties farther down the priority list, Todd said.

“Local governments are taking things into their own hands because they have to,” added Otis Rawl, head of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.

“Our infrastructure is failing us.”

‘Minimally adequate’ buses

For the next 22 years, the proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax would generate $1.07 billion to fix a transportation system in Richland County that supporters say jeopardizes people who walk and bicycle in Columbia, holds suburbanites hostage in rush-hour traffic and ignores the potential for growth in rural Richland County.

But what brought the tax issue to the ballot was a chronic lack of funding to run the bus system, a transit system essential for the working poor.

Transit supporters borrowed a pejorative term familiar to South Carolinians who pay attention to school funding, saying they no longer want a “minimally adequate” bus system. Instead, they say, they want a system to attract new riders.

Since 2006, Richland County has relied on a yearly car tax once called “the most-hated fee” that’s ever come down the pike to help fund buses. What started as a $16-per-car charge ended at $5 a year, as County Council members wrestled with public sentiment. Businesses paid more. The county stopped collecting the fee in July, instead relying on savings to fund the bus just beyond the November referendum date.

Meanwhile, the city stepped in with a 2 percent franchise fee on utility bills to help fund buses, costing the typical city household less than $20 a year. The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce also helped guide the transit authority toward a new era, replacing the longtime director and selecting a new board of directors.

Less than a year into the job, director Bob Schneider would design a new bus system, choosing the best features from studies conducted through the years. Schneider, recently honored for innovation in the field of transit, works for Veolia Transportation, one of the largest public transit firms in the world, which manages the bus system.

If voters approve the sales tax, it would more than double the bus system’s current budget of $5.47 million a year, providing a guaranteed source of funding until the year 2035.

But if voters defeat the sales tax, public officials who’ve been touting the bus system as crucial – not just to local workers but to the future of a progressive Southern city – have not addressed how they would salvage public transit.

$148 million in projects not identified

While the crisis in bus funding brought the penny sales tax to the ballot, road projects are driving this year’s ballot measure.

The county chose a broad approach, understanding that each mode appeals to different constituency groups and knowing road improvements would help the local economy, said Richland County Councilman Paul Livingston.

The largest share of the $656 million in new road money over 22 years would benefit the county’s existing roadways, with 14 massive widening projects, affecting some of the county’s busiest corridors. The package also includes 15 intersection improvement projects.

The most expensive widening projects include Shop Road, from I-77 north to USC’s football stadium, North Main Street and Hard Scrabble Road, as well as Broad River Road.

But there would be three new roads built, too, roads that business leaders trumpet as ways to expand the tax base and bring in new jobs.

Two new streets would open land along Columbia’s riverfront to the University of South Carolina’s Innovista research campus by extending Greene Street and Williams Street.

The third would extend Shop Road south for more than four miles through woods, connecting with Garners Ferry Road and opening thousands of acres of raw land to manufacturing, industrial and commercial development. Boosters with the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce say the project would improve the county’s standing in an increasingly competitive environment. They say the county is hampered by a lack of large industrial sites like those the new Shop Road would provide, primed with a heavy electrical infrastructure, rail lines, water and sewer.

While most of the road projects have been identified, project details for a broad category totaling $148 million have not been outlined:

• $45 million to pave rural dirt roads, an amount that would address 69 miles of the county’s 236 miles of dirt roads.

• $40 million to resurface suburban streets, repaving 133 of its 522 miles of paved streets.

$63 million to make unspecified neighborhood transportation improvements in six parts of the county.

Each year, the county has chipped away at a prioritized list of dirt roads to be paved, using the $1 million it usually gets in state gas tax revenues. It has fixed suburban streets, too, using a $1.4 million-a-year state allocation.

The public works department is updating the dual priority lists, prepared in 2002, with current data designed to ensure roads with greatest needs are addressed first.

Public works director David Hoops said new work lists won’t be done for about six months.

In the decade since the county established priorities, Hoops said, data that determined a road’s placement on the list likely have changed.

“A road that had two homes 10 years ago could have 10 or 15 now, which would significantly change its ranking” on the dirt roads list, Hoops said.

The county’s list of resurfacing projects is just as dated. New subdivisions have probably added 100 miles of roads in the past 10 years, Hoops said.

Finally, the county has set aside $63 million for transportation improvements in neighborhoods – a new program targeting six areas where master plans have been done to guide redevelopment. But the breakdown provided by the county adds up to more than $63 million. Spokeswoman Stephany Snowden said by email County Council has not set priorities yet.

So how will voters know which roads will be paved, resurfaced or improved with the $148 million?

The council has pledged to appoint a 15-member, citizen “watchdog” group to keep an eye on the entire $1 billion in projects.

Roxanne Ancheta, the project manager on the sales tax initiative, said the citizen group would review the work lists once they’re completed to develop a recommendation for County Council.

Right the first time

Like Richland County, Columbia gets some state gas tax money for its street program.

Deputy public works director Robert Anderson said it has been promised $700,000 a year in state money for the next five years, funds that will be used to resurface city streets.

The city and county also compete for federal highway money targeted to high-impact projects in the urban areas of Richland and Lexington counties. The federal allocation was about $18 million this year.

Norman Whitaker, director of the Central Midlands Council of Governments, which oversees use of the money, said he expects the pool to decrease next month by about $5 million, to $13.3 million, because of policy decisions at state and federal levels. A decision at the local level to borrow money to knock out some big projects about a decade ago means $5 million is already committed to debt reduction, further cutting what’s available for new projects.

Still, penny tax critics say, state and federal road money continues to flow to South Carolina and county leaders have overreached with their sales tax package.

“There are constantly projects being done,” said Michael Letts, a leader of the anti-tax group Not Another Penny and candidate for Richland County Council.

While few projects have been completed since 2010, a couple of big ones are in the pipeline – state projects to widen a portion of Hard Scrabble Road in Northeast Richland and Leesburg Road, southeast of Columbia.

Earlier this month, state engineers got to work on a half-mile of sidewalk around the S.C. State Fairgrounds, too, at Rosewood Drive and Bluff Road. DOT project manager Julie Barker said the complex, $1 million project would be designed and ready to build next year.

Letts said the county should have spent the two years since the failed referendum winnowing its work list, using hard data like accident rates and traffic congestion to set top priorities. Instead, the county returned to a list of construction projects compiled in 2008 by a citizen committee working with consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.

This summer, even as Letts’ group tried to persuade County Council to shrink its penny tax proposal, others had different ideas.

Bus riders and environmental groups asked the council to boost funding for transit and add a Saluda River trail and bridge.

The council’s solution was to change its original 20-year tax proposal to a 22-year tax.

Lee Bussell, a public relations chief and chairman of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said there were few changes between 2010 and 2012 because the county basically got it right the first time.

But he touts formation of the new watchdog committee as a way to assure voters that the county will stick to its publicized work list. Seven members would be appointed by the county, with three appointed by Columbia and one each by Irmo, Forest Acres, Blythewood, Arcadia Lakes and Eastover.

At a forum on the sales tax at Bluff Road Park last week, resident James Porter said the county should have focused on bus service as its No. 1 priority.

“We’ve got an economy that’s not really strong enough right now,” he said, “and you’re talking a penny tax for 22 years.”

As the meeting wound down, though, Porter volunteered to help monitor the spending if the tax passes. “I want to be on that watchdog committee,” he said.

The chamber’s Citizens for a Greater Midlands, meanwhile, kicked off its penny campaign earlier this month, crafting a theme on three main points. The transportation sales tax would:

Create more than 14,000 new jobs, a figure that includes construction jobs (giving preference to local contractors and minority-owned businesses) as well as new industrial recruits.

• Improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists at greater risk of death and injury as more people drive on congested streets.

• Provide local control of transportation-improvement projects during an impasse at the federal and state levels.

As Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin put it: “This is us, taking control of our own destiny.”

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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