Penny tax group says it can move roads projects forward. Richland County doesn’t bite

Work on Bluff Road near the S.C. State Fairgrounds in 2017. Bluff Road was a project funded by the Richland County transportation penny sales tax.
Work on Bluff Road near the S.C. State Fairgrounds in 2017. Bluff Road was a project funded by the Richland County transportation penny sales tax. tdominick@thestate.com

Richland County Council did not commit to moving forward Tuesday with a proposal to reformat the county’s penny tax-funded roads program pitched by the private partnership that manages the program, months before its contract with the county comes to an end.

A spokesman for the Program Development Team or PDT — the partnership of three companies that runs the $1 billion penny tax program — recommended the council drop a combined $19.5 million in projects from the list of road improvements approved by voters in a 2012 referendum, tweaks that he said would “get nearly all projects done.”

But council members sounded reluctant to move forward before the county’s contract with the PDT expires Nov. 2, partly based on the expectation that the change will save the county $4 million a year. Richland County’s own transportation program will take over management of the penny program once the contract expires.

The PDT’s David Beaty pitched the council on changes that would mostly affect smaller sidewalk and bicycle path projects, as well as improvements to Commerce Drive in Columbia’s Rosewood neighborhood and Kelly Mill Road in the Lake Carolina area of northeast Richland County. The proposal would also modify some road widening projects.

He told the council that the PDT can move forward with $70 million worth of work this year, including advertising for a $20 million crossover to the train tracks on Greene Street in the Vista and the nearly $44 million widening of Atlas Road.

But Councilwoman Chakisse Newton said the county should come up with its own framework to move forward, since Richland County’s relationship with the PDT ends in a little more than four months. When Beaty said progress could lag during the transition to county management, Councilwoman Dalhi Myers noted the presence of the county’s financial advisers at the meeting.

“We have paid experts in the room who are better positioned to give advice on that,” Myers said.

Nevertheless, council members said they wanted to see the county move forward with a plan to tackle an estimated $154 million shortfall in ongoing projects.

“I’ve seen this a thousand times,” an exasperated Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson said of Beaty’s presentation at one point. “I can’t tell you how many work sessions I’ve sat through.”

Dickerson also pushed back on plans to drop the Kelly Mill Road project in her district, citing the growing population in the Northeast.

“It might be insignificant to you, but for that community, this is a very important piece” of the penny program, she said.

Councilwoman Allison Terracio was skeptical of plans to save $10 million from greenway projects that would come from dropping 6 “lower-ranked,” “further out” sidewalks and 25 bike paths where DOT won’t allow road modifications, Beaty said.

“One of those (sidewalks) could be the way someone goes from their home to a COMET bus stop,” she said.

Under the PDT’s proposal, the county would also reimburse the penny program for $3 million spent on public relations and another $1 million spent on a small business program, both of which the S.C. Supreme Court has ruled were “suspect expenditures” for a tax approved by voters in 2012 to improve the county’s roads.

Council adjourned without taking any action on Tuesday. Councilman Chip Jackson, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, said that panel would take up the recommendations at a later time.

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.