Richland County considers slashing greenways in the penny tax program

Richland County’s ambitious penny tax greenway program is about to shrink, big time.

County Council members are considering delaying or cutting about half of the 16 greenway sections proposed in the 2012 ordinance that created the penny sales tax program. Greenways are recreational walkways that meander along creeks and rivers and are intended to connect neighborhoods to each other and to recreational areas.

The Richland County Transportation Program has a total funding of $1.07 billion. Of that nearly $81 million was dedicated to bike paths, sidewalks and greenways. The greenway fund has about $21 million.

However, Richland County Transportation Director Michael Niermeier recently told the council that the actual budgets for those greenways are expected to dwarf the original estimates envisioned by a consulting firm beginning as far back as 2008.

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The passage of time has caused the cost of materials to inflate, some routes have changed and specifications for the paths by the city of Columbia, which will absorb and maintain the larger greenways when they are completed, have become more complex, he said.

“And some can’t be done simply because of geography,” Neirmire said.

However, Valerie Marcil of the Gills Creek Watershed Association said that the private Project Development Team hired by the county to manage the penny tax program has been more focused on large road projects and lacked experience in designing and building greenways.

That resulted in bloated design, engineering and management fees, she said, noting that by the county’s own estimates, just the design and management costs on the $2.25 million Gills Creek Greenway are now more than $1 million. That doesn’t include the greenway’s actual construction.

“Nobody on the PDT or the county or county council understood greenways, so there has been a tremendous amount of mismanagement and waste.,” Marcil said. “They have spent five years going in circles.“

The development team and the county transportation department are proposing a list of changes to the program, eliminating eight greenway sections, scaling back others and consolidating budgets to complete what they can.

However, county council has decided not renew the development team’s contact when it expires in November, bringing its duties in-house. That means delays in considering and implementing any changes to the program, said new Richland County Council member Allison Terracio, who represents part of the area where the next major greenway is scheduled to be built, Gill’s Creek.

“I would be hesitant to (vote on changes) until we get our feet underneath us,” Terracio said. “We need people with the expertise to get this right. It’s not laying out a sidewalk or building a road.

“We need to focus on what the main goals of the greenways are and that is connecting people with places,” she said. “We don’t need greenways to nowhere.”

Here are the projects and where they stand:

The Lincoln Tunnel, or Vista Greenway, which was designed prior to the penny tax, has been completed. It runs from Lady Street to Elmwood Avenue along a former railroad bed.

It was estimated in 2012 to cost $892,739. It was built for $1.5 million.

The greenway is now a city park.

The Saluda Riverwalk, a three-mile, $8 million greenway that runs along the Saluda River from Interstate 26 to the confluence with the Broad River, is about complete.

The $8 million was originally intended to include a second phase that would bridge the Broad River and link the new greenway to the Canal Embankment riverwalk on the east of the river and in turn Riverfront Park. However that phase is no longer listed as a project.

The link would allow a runner or biker to go from EdVenture Children’s Museum past Riverbanks Zoo and north to the future crossing into Lexington County. However, the second phase no longer appears on penny tax documents. And the riverwalk has been plagued with delays.

The Saluda Riverwalk and the adjacent, privately funded Boyd Island access project will eventually become a city park.

The Gills Creek Greenway was meant to link in three sections Forest Acres and Fort Jackson to Bluff Road.

But opposition from the Cross Hill and King’s Grant neighborhoods eliminated the lengthy Forest Acres and Fort Jackson stretches. And concerns by residents of the Hampton Greene neighborhoods forced planners to shift what was left of the walkway from the east side — which is dry and level — to the swampy west side.

That increased costs tenfold for the trail south of Rosewood Avenue.

The council is now considering shrinking the $2.2 million project to run from Fort Jackson Boulevard to Mikell Lane, although planners are trying to stretch it to the Timberlane neighborhood.

It, too, will eventually become a city park.

The Smith Creek and Rocky Branch greenways were supposed to link the north end of the Canal Embankment greenway at the Broad River diversion dam to the new park being built in the BullStreet District and then on to Olympia.

But budget concerns have led members of the development team to advise council members to shift all of the $2.7 million in funding into Olympia. That stretch would connect with a proposed private greenway behind Olympia Mill and stretch to the existing Granby Park Greenway along the Congaree River.

The Crane Creek Greenway was intended to connect the Canal Embankment at the diversion dam to Columbia International University and North Columbia in three sections.

The recommendation is to not build the greenway from the dam to CIU and shift the $2.8 million budget to the stretch from the dam to Mountain Drive.

The Columbia Mall Greenway, which runs along Trenholm Road from south of Dent Middle School to north of O’Neil Court, is now recommended for cuts. The estimated $648,000 project is envisioned as a partial partnership with Richland District 1.

The team is recommending that two connectors at Dutchman Boulevard and between Woodbury Drive and Old Leesburg Road not be built.

The Dutchman budget would be shifted to a greenway between Polo Road and Windsor Lake. The Woodbury budget would be funneled to a widening project on Lower Richland Boulevard.

Jeff Wilkinson has worked for The State for both too long and not long enough. He’s covered politics, city government, history, business, the military, marijuana and the Iraq War. Jeff knows the weird, wonderful and untold secrets of South Carolina. Buy him a shot and he’ll tell you all about them.