May 2, 2014

One year into collections, Richland’s penny program just getting started

Richland County voters may have expected their first new road projects to be well underway by now.

Richland County voters may have expected their first new road projects to be well underway by now.

But exactly one year since the county began collecting a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for transportation, construction is just now getting started on an initial list of paving projects in rural areas – short stretches of little-used dirt roads, not big-ticket road projects affecting lots of people.

With the county forced to scrap its selection process for a program management firm in February, much-anticipated projects are running a good six months behind.

Unable to launch a large project, like widening Bluff Road or fixing the interchange at I-20 and Broad River Road, county officials have decided to accelerate a plan already in the works – paving 29 dirt roads this summer using an estimated $2.9 million in sales-tax money, supplemented with other funds.

“It’s something you can quickly do, so individuals will see some benefit of their tax dollars,” Councilman Paul Livingston said.

The paving of a block-long section of Mt. Pilgrim Church Road, in Northeast Richland, kicks off the sales tax program in a ceremony May 8.

But, in truth, it’s the hiring of the program development team that will mark real progress toward starting the county’s massive, $1.07 billion transportation plan.

Tuesday, Livingston and his colleagues are scheduled to sign off on their second attempt at hiring a private-sector management team. The team will handle everything from design and inspection to updating a website giving the public the latest information on construction.

First, though, the development team will prioritize hundreds of projects included in a 2012 voter-approved plan to improve roads, public transit, sidewalks and trails – projects that, put on a fast track, could be done in a decade.

It’s the need to rank and schedule projects that has frustrated progress, Livingston said.

“Although we’re stalled with the program management team, there’s still a lot going on,” he said. “By mid-summer, hopefully, we’ll start seeing a little bit of everything” under construction.

In January, the council picked ICA Engineering as its program management team, only to have one of the unsuccessful teams lodge a protest — a problem that just occurred in Florence County, too.

In Richland County, questions arose about whether the council improperly overrode staff rankings of the teams, which were based on experience as well as a commitment to hiring local subcontractors.

As a result, Richland County Council decided to start over on its selection process. This time, top staff will winnow the field to three teams, but will not rank them. The council hopes to select a team by July.

Additionally, the council is being asked, as part of penny spending, to decide whether to:

• Embark on a $3.2 million program to resurface suburban roads.

The county has earmarked $40 million for resurfacing, but transportation director Rob Perry suggested a way to get started this summer, even without a management team in place. He asked the county’s public works department to identify roads with recurring maintenance issues. The result: 37 roads, most in the northwest and north central part of the county. The council’s transportation committee has expressed an interest in tweaking the list, all of which would require the approval of the full County Council.

• Piggy-back on two repaving projects planned by the state.

Perry suggested the county try to take advantage of highway department plans to re-pave Trenholm Road and Clemson Road this summer, going ahead and adding bike lanes on Trenholm Road as well as sidewalks and bike lanes on Clemson Road. A partnership could save money for the county, which already had the bike and pedestrian projects on its to-do list, he said.

• Hire a separate manager just for trails.

Councilman Kelvin Washington said he wants to select a local firm to manage the county’s 15 trail projects, a scheme he said is allowable because they do not use federal funds. Perry noted that two projects already have been designed and presumably are in line to be done first: the Saluda Riverwalk, an extension of the Three Rivers Greenway alongside Riverbanks Zoo; and the city’s Lincoln Tunnel, serving Finlay Park.

• Fast-track the dirt-road paving program.

A council committee on dirt roads is recommending that the county do all $45 million in dirt-road paving in five years, by 2019.

Hayes Mizell, chairman of a citizen watchdog committee the county formed to keep tabs on its program, noted the county’s pace has been hampered by both a court challenge of the November 2012 vote for the sales tax and the protest of the council’s $50 million program development contract.

“There’s been a good faith effort, but there have been some fits and starts,” he said Wednesday.

“Now things are, it appears, moving forward.”

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