Road improvements dominate Lexington County tax plan

05/05/2014 10:07 PM

11/05/2014 9:42 PM

Road improvements compose the bulk of projects that would be supported by a proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax in Lexington County.

But the package doesn’t include County Council’s top choice – a new entrance off I-26 to Columbia Metropolitan Airport – because it is too expensive.

A six-member panel is near settling on 61 projects — from an original list of nearly 400 — with a price tag of roughly $243 million as the main pieces of the package that the tax would pay for if it is approved in a referendum Nov. 4.

Those projects “most likely” will be in the package recommended after last-minute modifications, panel chairman Mike Crapps of Lexington said. The panel meets Thursday to continue shaping the package.

Selections so far are “a good indication of the way we’re headed,” he said.

Nearly three-fourths of the expected revenue is earmarked for transportation, with proposals for libraries, recreation, new town halls, schools and cultural centers largely ignored from the $673 million in projects sought.

The focus is on the basics to keep pace with steady growth, Crapps said.

Key projects in the $175 million in road improvements tentatively accepted by the panel include:

• Widening Longs Pond Road – a major route for commuters and cargo haulers – off I-20 near Lexington and Red Bank.
• Adding a new entrance off I-26 to the industrial area near Cayce that is the home of online retailer Amazon and Nephron Pharmaceuticals.
• Widening Columbia Avenue from I-26 west through the center of Chapin, a major commuter route.
• Paving up to 100 miles of dirt roads, although that may be reduced.

Missing is a new entrance off I-26 for Columbia Metropolitan Airport to provide easier access for cargo haulers and passengers, the top recommendation of county leaders.

County officials continued to seek aid for that idea, a 15-year-old goal.

The $74 million price tag for the airport’s new front door fell out of favor since it threatened to eliminate scores of other projects from consideration, Crapps said.

Commission members instead are trying to spread out improvements across the county, a strategy supporters say is designed to attract wider appeal at the ballot.

“They want to touch as many lives as they possibly can,” County Council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo said. “I don’t have heartburn on that – it’s reasonable.”

The plan taking shape also includes nearly $54 million in water, sewer and drainage improvements as well as $14 million for new buildings and recreation facilities.

Projects other than roads that made the cut include a path for walking and jogging along the lower Saluda River as well as a branch off it into West Columbia, a western regional office for deputies near Batesburg-Leesville, athletic fields in Gaston, a recreation center in Pelion, and civic centers in Gaston and Swansea.

Proposals not making the cut include an aquatics center in Springdale, a safety training center in Irmo, a new city hall in Cayce, improvements at eight libraries, a performing arts center at Chapin High School and sports complex in the Dixiana area.

A handful of projects are expected to be added to those already chosen. So far, there are 28 road projects, 22 for water, sewer and drainage and 11 for recreation and other categories.

Overall, roads and water, sewer and drainage improvements are getting nearly half of the amounts sought while everything else is receiving a handful.

Panel members may reduce the amount allocated for some already picked – dirt road paving and eight others totaling $54 million are under review for that – to allow more projects to qualify. Meanwhile, about $25 million remains uncommitted.

The panel plans to approve no more than $270 million in projects, $20 million less than the amount that state economists forecast the tax would generate over its eight-year life.

That’s a precaution in case the forecast is off-base, Crapps said. “We want to be conservative.”

But panel members may attach other projects that would proceed if those initially chosen come in lower cost, if some are canceled or if revenue is higher than predicted.

Panel members plan to submit the package to County Council by the end of May. Then it’s up to the nine council members to accept the plan in its entirety and put it on the ballot or reject it.

The new tax would cost each county resident an average of about $110 through 2023, with purchases of groceries and prescription medicine exempt.

Supporters say the tax is the only way to pay for many long-wanted improvements.

“Everybody is getting something because there are needs all over the county,” Scott Adams, consultant for People for Lexington’s Penny, said of the package taking shape. “It is saleable.”

Opponents largely are holding back until the referendum is set, planning to rely on anti-tax sentiment as well as challenging some proposed uses.

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