Editorial: Richland council must be good steward over roads program

May 10, 2014 

— WHEN RICHLAND County elected officials and leaders sold the penny-on-the-dollar transportation sales tax to voters in 2012, their pitch included a vow to get “shovel ready” impact projects off the ground quickly; that’s proving easier said than done.

Voters did their part in approving the sales tax that will generate more than $1 billion for buses and transportation-related projects and giving county officials permission to borrow $450 million so they could get started on multiple road and other improvements as soon as possible. But if residents expected to see their favored project — or any project, for that matter — under construction by now, they will have to settle for a bit of disappointment.

County Council hasn’t been able to deliver the quick start it had anticipated. It’s not all the council’s fault; officials understandably feared moving too fast initially because of a court challenge of the November 2012 vote. But once that hurdle was cleared, it was the county that caused the next delay.

County Council stubbed its toe and significantly slowed the process when the selection of a program manager went awry. The council chose ICA Engineering in January to oversee the mammoth construction program but later rescinded that vote after one of the unsuccessful teams protested. There were questions about whether the council improperly overrode staff rankings. The council has started the process anew and could make a selection by July.

It’s unclear when major work might begin; at the moment, the process is running about six months behind.

Frankly, if it were not for public buses rolling through city streets plastered with the name COMET, a rebranding of the Midlands public transit system, and the return of bus routes that had been cut for lack of funding, you wouldn’t know that the sales tax even existed — unless you noticed you had been paying the levy for a full year now.

Obviously, this is a gigantic undertaking that comes with complexities that will take due diligence and time to ensure it’s done right. The council’s gaffe in choosing a program manager to oversee the hundreds of millions of dollars in construction is proof of that.

The council is attempting to provide citizens with signs of progress by moving forward with small paving projects involving little-used dirt roads in rural areas. Obviously, the small-scale projects won’t generate the fanfare and enthusiasm that would have come had a notable project kicked off the construction campaign, which is expected to transform the transportation network in the county, boosting quality of life and economic development.

Perhaps it’s just as well. It’s obvious that County Council has its work cut out for it as it tries to administer this unprecedented program. Its ability to hire the right management company is critical to the success of the entire process. To that end, council members must exercise good judgment and stewardship as they make another attempt to hire that team.

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