Bolton: Raising the Richland County sales tax: We can’t afford not to

Associate EditorOctober 16, 2012 

Richland County officials hope that voters, who rejected a proposal two years ago to increase the sales tax by a penny on the dollar to fund the public bus system, roads and sidewalks, will have a change of heart Nov. 6 . Today and Wednesday, Associate Editor Warren Bolton outlines arguments in support of and against the ballot measure.

SOME ASK whether Richland County can afford to increase the local sales tax by a penny to pay for improved public bus service as well as roads and other transportation-related projects, but if we’re going to move from good to great, we can’t afford not to.

While providing permanent funding for the struggling public bus system is paramount, improving and expanding bus service alone would be like putting old wine in new sacks. The county’s overall transportation system is deficient, with roads and bridges in disrepair, key connectors that would encourage new development unfinished or nonexistent, major roadways over capacity and sidewalks and bike paths woefully inadequate.

A comprehensive, sales-tax-funded modernization of the county’s transportation system would have an immeasurable impact throughout this community.

It would provide long-term funding at an unprecedented level for the ailing bus system, allowing the Midlands to develop the viable transit system that a community this size needs. It would create thousands of temporary and permanent jobs as well as open up new areas to development and vastly improve roads, sidewalks, bike paths and other projects.

It would help protect the environment, reduce smog-producing pollutants, lessen damage caused by run-off and preserve green spaces.

It would help reduce travel time: As more people choose public transit or walk or bike, fewer cars will be on the road. It could enhance employee recruitment and give more workers access to jobs. Public transportation has helped expand labor pools around the country. Businesses, those that locate directly on transit lines in particular, find that public transportation increases employee reliability and reduces turnover and absenteeism.

In as much as the terribly underfunded bus system leaves residents without cars struggling to find a ride to work, doctors’ offices and the grocery store, it also leaves those who depend on cars no other option. Drivers are left wasting costly gas — and polluting the air — while idling in traffic along roads such as Hardscrabble in Northeast Richland. And car owners shell out hard-earned cash to address wear and tear caused by potholes and the like on the county’s many well-worn roadways.

And while this community has spent little time — or money — on bike lanes and sidewalks, they’re far more than a nice extra. Just look at the rising rate of pedestrian deaths on local and state roadways; nine pedestrians and four people on mopeds were killed in accidents in the first nine months of the year in Columbia and Richland County. No bicyclists have died this year, but this community has endured heart-wrenching stories of cyclists killed in accidents.

While preventing injuries and saving lives are reason enough for such improvements, there is still further justification for constructing new bike ways and sidewalks: As with the buses, as more people use them, the number of congestion-causing, pollution-laden car trips, whether to the store or the park or even work, will decrease. Not only that, but connect bike ways and sidewalks to bus stops, and we might see even more people using public transit.

And let’s not forget the economic impact of the proposed sales tax, which would raise more than $1 billion over 22 years. In many ways, this could be considered Richland County’s own stimulus plan. The council is asking voters to approve a $450 million bond issue along with the penny tax increase. That would allow officials to borrow money up front — to be repaid via the new sales tax — to get projects started sooner than they would otherwise, injecting money into the local economy and putting some people to work.

Local economist Harry Miley, who conducted a study on the impact of the tax on behalf of the pro-penny group Citizens for the Greater Midlands, found that the transportation penny would generate more than $1.2 billion in economic activity and create more than 16,500 jobs in construction and new industry. Proposed new roads would lure new industrial development along the riverfront and in southeast Columbia, producing 5,508 permanent jobs, he said. Meanwhile, he predicts there will be 4,170 temporary construction jobs. The remaining would come from suppliers to contractors and new hires in other sectors as construction workers spend their cash. He predicts that new businesses would pay more than $28 million annually in new property taxes within the first decade.

Mr. Miley noted that commuters would save 369,000 hours a year in travel time and that drivers would save $281 a year in costs associated with maintenance of their vehicles.

The typical Richland family of 2.3 people would spend $106 annually on the tax. Significantly, 42 percent of the revenue would come from people who shop in Richland but live elsewhere.

What doesn’t get talked about as much is how funding and modernizing the transportation network will allow officials to create a more livable community and address land-use and development issues, including sprawl.

Yes, that horse is out of the barn, which is why we have to make improvements to overcrowded roads such as Hardscrabble. But instead of continuing to build out into the countryside, creating greater distances between residential, work and shopping areas, we must work to reduce the distance between those places.

Having a better planned and improved transportation system should affect how local governments make land-use and development decisions. Opening up new roadways should promote development closer in — along the riverfront and in southeast Columbia.

Moreover, as roadways are improved to better accommodate buses, motorists, pedestrians and cyclists, transit and elected officials should work together to sell new industries on the advantages of such an integrated network and entice them to locate along bus lines and — one day — in areas where light rail travels.

Ultimately, this penny isn’t just about using buses and roads and bike paths to move people from one place to another. It’s about quality of life, the character of our community, the environment and economic development. It’s about us collectively choosing to invest in ourselves and the future of our community.

A well-connected, proud, alluring city not only feels good about itself, but is a draw to those looking to relocate businesses and families.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin recently said that Columbia competes worldwide for new industry. As an example, he noted that one company was considering Columbia along with Mumbai and Mexico City. But the mayor said Columbia would be hard-pressed to land a big fish, in part because our transportation network is so lacking. Businesses depend on a strong transportation network that can not only get folks to work and play but also move goods, services and supplies.

Can we afford to raise the sales tax by a penny on the dollar? Can we afford not to?

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

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