A $325 million package of road improvements for the Columbia area is going back to the drawing board after state transportation officials raised questions Monday about parts of the plan.
Inclusion of streetscaping proposals for some downtown corridors ran into major opposition from members of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank.
The effort to reshape the plan – in the works among local leaders for more than a year – came after board chairman Don Leonard of Myrtle Beach told area political leaders that panel members “want to make it work and we are struggling.”
An alliance of leaders from the city of Columbia and Richland and Lexington counties is making a pitch for state aid from the infrastructure bank for four projects downtown, as well as a new entrance to Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
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The new airport road was the only part of the package that didn’t encounter complaints from panel members.
Much of the skepticism is aimed at what some board members said is as much as $25 million in landscaping that is ineligible under standards for aid that the panel provides for local projects.
“We have to figure out what can work and what can’t work,” said panel member Joe Taylor of Columbia, a former state Commerce secretary.
Other panel members expressed doubt about Richland County’s offer to make $450 million in improvements on state-maintained roads – paid for by a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax voters approved in 2012 – in exchange for assistance for the five projects. That allows local officials to put up $33 million directly, much less than normal.
It’s an approach that State Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman said deviates from the tradition of requiring significant local aid for projects for which aid is sought.
Leonard told local leaders it’s common for projects to run into questions before an acceptable plan is reached.
“We are going to work to make sure we are all singing from the same hymnal,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
But the questions suggest a “very limited view of what transportation is today” since streetscaping is a vital element in rejuvenating downtown in many communities, he said.
Lexington County officials pledged to help as needed, even though the airport entrance is their only part of the package.
“We’ll try to work the challenges out,” County Council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo said.
The improvements wanted are aimed at easing congestion, improving commerce and beautifying major roads, supporters say.
If approved, the projects would be built in stages over a decade.
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483
Midlands road package
Projects that local officials sought state aid for are:
▪ $145.3 million for railroad overpasses and beautification of Assembly Street between Elmwood Avenue and Rosewood Drive
▪ $112.4 million for a new entrance to Columbia Metropolitan Airport off I-26
▪ $46.3 million for beautification of Huger Street from I-126 to the Granby neighborhood
▪ $36.4 million to extend and beautify Greene Street to Huger Street to assist in the University of South Carolina’s expansion toward the Congaree River
▪ $17.6 million for extending Williams Street toward the river for USC expansion and new development