An expensive list of major road improvements financed by the penny sales tax faces delays while Columbia and Richland County leaders fight over who’s responsible for the cost of relocating utility lines.
At risk most immediately are $54.5 million in projects for the widening of Clemson and Atlas roads, heavily used thoroughfares, as well as streetscaping and drainage upgrades to Alexander Pointe, a subdivision in the Hopkins community of Lower Richland, according to the most recent report from the company hired to bring penny projects to realization.
The importance of settling the dispute is, “Critical, that’s the word I would use,” said David Beaty, who leads the consortium of companies that oversee the construction of projects for the remainder of the $1 billion-plus program. “It’s potentially delaying projects.”
Some Columbia officials maintain the $254.5 million generated so far by the 1-cent-on-the-dollar “transportation penny” should cover the bill for digging up water and sewer lines as well as moving electricity and phone lines during road renovation projects.
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But some county leaders, led by county administrator Gerald Seals, say the city should pay relocation costs for projects that affect places that have city services. More pointedly, Seals contends the county – not the city – makes the final determination, because the county that administers sales tax projects.
Both sides seem entrenched.
“We believe strongly that the cost of relocation of utilities was intended to be part of the penny,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
Yet a written joint agreement, signed after the 2012 penny referendum passed and that spells out terms of penny projects states, “(T)he county may elect to use program (penny tax) funds for all or part of such utility relocation costs.”
The city and the county each have committed to pay to relocate utilities on one previous project – both of which are inside the city limits.
The city is paying relocation costs for the largest penny project to date, the $55 million upgrade of two miles of North Main Street, Beaty said. But the county paid for the same expenses for improvements along Assembly Street near the Darla Moore business school on the University of South Carolina campus, he said.
County Councilman “Chip” Jackson said relocation costs are a small portion of large, important road projects, and those expenses should not dictate whether they get done.
“I don’t believe that any projects of the magnitude of penny projects should be held up or stopped because of some small portion it it,” Jackson said. “I just don’t see us stopping 99 percent of the project over 1 percent.”
The dispute has been roiling quietly for months. But it’s poised to break into public view Tuesday during a face-to-face meeting between members of city and county councils at the downtown convention center.
Until last week, the thorny issue completely halted a key right-of-way purchase for the $23 million Greene Street bridge that will connect the USC’s west campus to the Congaree River, Beaty and Richland County Councilman Greg Pearce said.
County council voted in July to stop the acquisition of a USC building, appraised at $3 million, because of the dispute, officials told The State newspaper.
County Council partially lifted the stoppage decision on Tuesday after Pearce asked council to reconsider the vote and to allow property right-of-way negotiations to continue until the utilities fight can be settled.