Opinion Extra

Are we getting what was promised from the transportation penny tax?

Some of Richland County’s penny sales tax for transportation was used to pay for the Lincoln Tunnel Greenway.
Some of Richland County’s penny sales tax for transportation was used to pay for the Lincoln Tunnel Greenway. The State file photo

Six years have passed since the most controversial election in Richland County history. Has the penny tax delivered the promised results … or has it been a boon to its supporters and a bust to the general public?

Through the end of September 2018, the tax has collected $303 million from retail sales taxes and another $50 million through bond proceeds. It’s time to independently evaluate the management and results of those funds and ask the critical question: do we continue down the same path or reset our priorities and improve the way the dollars are managed?

If one looks at the projects’ website, you see that the most money, $80 million, has been spent to run the Comet bus system. The second-largest beneficiary has been the University of South Carolina. According to data on this website, more than $46 million has been spent to complete infrastructure related to USC’s Innovista project with millions more slated to be spent.

You also see an additional $9 million went to widening Bluff Road, a street whose width seems to be only an issue six Saturdays a year. Other project accomplishments listed are eight intersections that have been improved at a cost of $12 million, Riverbanks Zoo which got a $3.4 million pedestrian bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel Greenway built for $1.6 million and 5 miles of sidewalks have been laid at a cost of $134,000.

While great for those that benefited, those projects hardly fit the bill of addressing the major traffic and road improvement issues the public was counting on. So shouldn’t we all be asking why hasn’t a tax that has already collected $353 million uplifted the region and provided projects everyone can identify with pride?

With five years of data to study, it’s time to pause and evaluate: are citizens getting what was promised in traffic relief, auto repair savings from fixing the pot holes and improving the roadways? Are the “priorities” of yesterday the right priorities for today and tomorrow? It’s hard to imagine the priorities of the program six years ago are all still relevant today.

If the answer is that we are not getting our money’s worth – or if the results are not what were promised – then we need to move to put this spending under control of people who answer directly to the public. If we see the management costs have been excessive relative to the results, we need new management. If our needs have indeed changed, then we need to hold new public meetings and establish strategic priorities with a view towards the long-term future of the county.

I suspect we all know what the answers will be. But let’s have them confirmed independently and hope that those same business leaders, advertising executives, political consultants and local politicians who promised the benefits to the working people of Richland County will call for the needed changes so that it benefits everyone, not just a select few, and make sure it is spent wisely and carefully going forward.

It’s time for all of us to know if the penny tax is disproportionately benefiting a connected few or if it is a rising tide that lifts all boats. Is it making the lives and commutes of the county’s working citizens better and easier? Is it opening up new areas for economic development, eliminating rail crossings, building beltways and improving our road quality … or is it simply benefiting the special interests who holler the loudest?

Before the tax passed, the voices promising transformational change were everywhere. Now, their silence is deafening. It’s past time for a public review of the penny tax’s first five years and with it a recalibration of its priorities and goals.

It’s time to bring the penny out of the dark and put the money where it belongs: under the feet – and wheels – of the citizens of Richland County.

Mr. Taylor is a lifelong resident of Richland County and served as the S.C. secretary of Commerce from February 2005 to January 2011.