THERE ARE legitimate reasons to support or oppose a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase to fund the public bus system and other transportation projects in Richland County.
Our primary concern is the fate of the bus system. The system is fast going broke, and without stable funding it will shut down. Workers won’t make it to hospitals or hotels or restaurants, patients won’t make it to doctor’s visits, and shoppers won’t make it to retail outlets. The local economy will suffer.
It never should have come to this. Columbia City and Richland County councils knew a decade ago that the bus system needed permanent funding. Instead of devising a plan and selling it to the public, they wasted time and political capital adding other burdens to the local sales tax, most notably a 2 percent levy on prepared foods for tourism projects. No one worried about making sure visitors would be able to move about efficiently once they arrived.
It wasn’t until Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority officials sounded the alarm that local officials became serious: Richland County levied a vehicle fee, Columbia sold property to keep the buses afloat, the transportation authority adjusted routes and service — and a county-appointed commission conducted a comprehensive transportation study, which led to Tuesday’s vote.
It’s troubling that elected leaders drove us into a corner, offering no other option. There’s no excuse for their poor planning and pitiful priority setting, but they did have help: The Legislature capped local taxing authority and gave cities and counties few alternatives to pay for services.
We have multiple concerns about the plan on Tuesday’s ballot: The volatile sales tax already is being relied on too heavily — in our community and across the state. It’s already 9 cents on some items in Richland County. It’s difficult to swallow raising it even more in this down economy. Moreover, most of the billion-plus dollars the tax would raise won’t be used to fund our primary need — the bus system; two-thirds would be spent on road improvements and building sidewalks, bike paths and greenways.
Despite these concerns, we have reluctantly concluded that on balance it is in the best interest of this community, its quality of life and its economy. We believe voters should approve the sales tax, and also allow the county to borrow $200 million, which would be repaid using the tax, in order to get work started as soon as possible.
One appealing aspect of this plan is that people from outside the county would pay a projected 40 percent of the tax. But two things in particular tipped the balance for us. The first is the overriding need for a vibrant bus system to serve those whose lives and livelihoods depend on it, support the economy and provide a transportation option that helps reduce congestion, pollution and gas use.
The second is the broad support the plan has received. Thirty-nine well-respected citizens, including Columbia College President Caroline Whitson and Columbia Urban League President J.T. McLawhorn, sat on the commission whose study formed the basis of this proposal; many have been vocal in their support of the increase. In addition, a number of influential business people have galvanized behind this effort. These include some of this community’s more conservative leaders.
They argue that saving the bus system is essential and that the road improvements, which we can buy at reduced prices now, will provide a tremendous economic boost to our local economy, jump-starting construction and putting people back to work. They pledge to stay engaged with elected leaders to ensure that this gargantuan undertaking is administered appropriately and in the best interest of this community, its citizens and taxpayers. We must hold them and our elected leaders to that pledge.
While many questions remain unanswered, we cannot overlook the overwhelming support of our business leaders and the partnership they’ve formed with local elected officials and community and neighborhood leaders. The broad cross-section of supporters believes this is an essential step we must take to move this community from good to great. We’ll never know if we don’t give it a try.