Fee on growth to pay for Lexington County roads suggested

Lexington County are once talking about levying impact fees on new development to help pay for road improvements.

The fees would be part of a package that also might include a proposal for a 10- to 12-mile toll road linking I-20 to the I-26/I-77 intersection near the Congaree River in Richland County – stretching across Red Bank to Dixiana – to route traffic away from Malfunction Junction.

It promises to be slow going for both ideas.

Renewed interest in fees comes after support for a second try this fall at voter approval of a penny sales tax increase for roads is fading. State money, too, seems unreachable.

“We’ve got to look at other ways to pay for roads,” County Councilman Ned Tolar of West Columbia said. “Fees are one way of asking people coming in to help pay for solving problems that new development increases.”

His plan would allow some revenue to be used for drainage improvements in flood-prone areas, long wanted by homeowners in Irmo and St. Andrews.

The effort for fees probably faces a hostile reception again from most of the nine members of the all-Republican council as well as some developers.

“A fee is a tax by a different name,” veteran Councilman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo said.

There are few other choices available if county leaders want to find a new source of revenue for roads, Tolar said. “We need to be creative in finding ways to get things done,” he said.

Fees on new development aren’t the total answer, said Earl McLeod, executive director of the Building Industry Council of Central South Carolina.

“All alternatives need to be on the table,” he said. “It’s not just impact fees that are going to solve the problem.”

One councilman who sided with Tolar in opposing the penny tax referendum predicted the fee proposal will be dead on arrival.

“I just don’t see that happening,” Councilman Bobby Keisler of Red Bank said.

Tolar hasn’t settled on the amount that will be suggested, although he said $2,500 seems reasonable for new homes. The fee wouldn’t apply to residential renovation.

If that amount were adopted, it would have produced $5.4 million last year for roads. That is more than double the amount received from the county’s share of state fuel taxes.

But the amount a fee is estimated to bring in is much less than the $36 million yearly forecast from the penny tax.

Tolar would apply a fee of undetermined amount yet to commercial projects, probably assessing them based on parking. There were 232 approved last year, but no count of related vehicle spaces is available yet.

Batesburg-Leesville and Swansea have fees on residential and commercial growth, the only ones among 14 municipalities in the 758-square-mile county. Half of the towns and cities charge fees to hook up to water and sewer service.

A “very limited” number of 46 counties in the state have fees on new development, said Tim Winslow, assistant general counsel for the South Carolina Association of Counties. The total was not available.

Meanwhile, Tolar is surprising other county leaders with his vision for a toll road that’s never been on the radar anywhere, including projects state transportation officials plan.

“It’s a novel idea,” Jeffcoat said.

In Tolar’s plan, building a road stretching 10-12 miles would be accomplished through a public-private partnership whose design is to be determined.

The road would ease congestion by providing a way around the I-20/I-26 intersection – nicknamed Malfunction Junction – that’s a major bottleneck for commuters and cargo haulers.

“It would remedy problems there by giving traffic a shortcut,” Tolar said.

Keisler agreed, but said the project seems likely to run into controversy if the path splits neighborhoods. The road’s path would make it difficult to avoid Red Bank.

It might also take two decades or more to make happen if it attracts enough interest.

Momentum never developed for similar proposals in the 1990s for a much shorter bypass around the steadily growing town of Lexington.

Building a toll road at urban interstate standards probably would cost $40 to $60 million per mile depending on its route, according a preliminary estimate by Ron Patton, deputy secretary for intermodal planning at the state Department of Transportation.

It’s too soon to discuss what the toll would be, but it would expire once the project is paid off, Tolar said.

Tim Flach: 803-771-8483