Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bolton: Richland County, SC, ready to kick road upgrades into high gear. Or is it?

. kkfoster@thestate.com

VROOM! VROOM! The Richland County penny transportation program has traversed the rough road that delayed progress early on and is ready to kick into high gear, with work on one major project expected to begin this spring.

As messy and disruptive as road construction can be, many residents are anxious for work to start. And understandably so: The county has been collecting the voter-approved penny-on-the-dollar sales tax to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of improvements since 2013; people want to see progress.

But the program is running months behind, having been delayed by a lawsuit challenging the 2012 election as well as County Council’s poor handling of a bid process to choose a firm to manage the massive construction program.

With the lawsuit now a memory, a project management firm in place and an in-house transportation director watching out for the county, Richland appears ready to roll. When the State of the Penny address was presented Jan. 26, county officials were glad to announce the schedule of projects lined up for 2015.

Council members and transportation officials who visited The State in mid-January said that while no major projects had been started, a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation, including legal, planning and contract work, had to be done to build the infrastructure needed to oversee the program.

They also noted that work started on smaller projects last year; the county paved seven miles of dirt roads last summer.

So far, I’d give Richland a passing grade for finally getting things on track — although county leaders handed their work in late, so to speak.

But now comes the real test. Will the county deliver the goods — on time, within budget and with quality?

Over the next five years, Richland expects to spend nearly $450 million improving roads, bike paths, pedestrian and greenway projects and more. The spending is part of a 22-year, $1.07 billion plan funded by the sales tax increase voters OK’d in 2012. About a third of the funding is dedicated to the public bus system.

Major work begins in earnest this spring with the anticipated start of a makeover for Greene Street that will connect USC with the riverfront. County Council recently approved a bid for the work on the first leg of the project, which is expected to be completed by fall.

Other projects scheduled to begin this year include the widening of Hard Scrabble Road and North Main Street as well as improvements to some key intersections: Clemson Road at Rhame Road/North Springs Road; Broad River Road at Rushmore Road; Farrow Road at Pisgah Church Road; North Springs Road at Risdon Way; Summit Parkway at Summit Ridge Drive; Kennerly Road at Coogler Road/Steeple Ridge Road.

The first phase of the Shop Road extension as well as Lincoln Tunnel Greenway and Three Rivers Greenway extensions and other work will begin this year as well. Check out the projects lists and priority rankings at richlandpenny.com.

While the Greene Street project might bring excitement about upcoming construction, the bid process for the first phase revealed a concern regarding efforts to ensure that disadvantaged, small, minority and local businesses get a portion of the hundreds of millions in government work coming down the pike.

The company that posted the lowest bid had provided for only 1.1 percent of the contract to be handled by disadvantaged and small, local and minority businesses. That led to the council postponing approval of the contract while the bidder sought to improve that percentage. By the time the contract went back before the council last week, the firm had raised the percentage from 1.1 percent to 11. That was enough to get approval from a majority on the council but not enough to allay concerns of others, who made it clear that this issue must be dealt with as more and more projects come to the table.

County officials had pledged to ensure that they would seek to keep as much money as possible in the community and that small and minority firms would get opportunities for work. A fledgling program meant to foster that has been slow getting off the ground.

That’s not the only challenge. County Council also is coming up short on making sure that the Transportation Penny Advisory Committee, the citizens panel created to serve as watchdog over the transportation program, can effectively watch out for the people’s money and projects. The county sold the higher sales tax to voters in part by assuring them the panel would have meaningful input in the decision-making process.

While the council insists the group’s mission is clear, that’s not how the advisory panel sees it. In prepared remarks during last month’s State of the Penny address, Hayes Mizell, chairman of the advisory committee, said the panel’s “role has become less clear.” The group is “informed about matters of the penny implementation after decisions have been made rather than asked for the committee’s advice and recommendations before decisions are made.”

It seems the county hasn’t yet gotten beyond all the rough road on this journey after all.

Reach Mr. Bolton

at (803) 771-8631

or wbolton@thestate.com.