Transportation sales tax projects must be re-aligned

Transportation sales tax projects must be re-aligned
April 04 15:46 2019 Print This Article

The decision by Charleston County Council to use transportation sales tax funds to complete the I-526 project will require council to re-align the projects covered by the 0.5% sales tax approved by county voters in 2016. The tax will generate $2.1 billion dollars. While I-526 was not one of the projects under consideration at the time of the referendum, County Council has the legal authority to repurpose the projects which may receive transportation sales tax funding.

Charleston County recently signed an amended contract with the SC Transportation Infrastructure Bank board and the SCDOT to complete I-526, connecting West Ashley with Johns Island and James Island. The infrastructure bank will pay $420 million for the estimated $725 million project, with Charleston County on the hook for the balance of the funds. While up to $305 million of the local funds could come from the transportation sales tax, there are other funding sources available. The Charleston Area Transportation Study Committee (CHATS) unanimously pledged up to $200 million in federal Guideshares funding for the project in 2017.

I-526 opponents on Johns Island and James Island, along with the environmental non-profit Coastal Conservation League, have long contended that County Council should give priority to the Maybank Highway “pitchfork” project, which would divert Maybank traffic to River Road on Johns Island, and a road-widening and overpass project connecting Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley with Bohicket Road on Johns Island. County Council funded the pitchfork project in 2013 and the widening and overpass project in 2017. Like most road projects, the permitting process goes on for years before construction may begin.

The $2.1 billion transportation sales tax passed in 2016 envisioned a mix of $1.3 billion going to roads, $600 million going to mass transportation projects and $210 million designated for “green space” conservation. Lowcountry Source recently documented that the plans for a Lowcountry Rapid Transit system from Summerville to downtown Charleston have a lot of flaws. It is our opinion that the project should be deferred until the design flaws can be worked out. The 0.5% transportation sales approved by voters in 2004 may be maxed out at $1.3 billion as early as 2025 and could be re-authorized by voters in 2026 to renew the mass transportation project.

I-526 must be completed to relieve congestion on Savannah Highway, Glenn McConnell Parkway, Bees Ferry and other major arteries in West Ashley. The completed highway also gives people on the sea islands a better evacuation route in the event of storms. The completion of the pitchfork and overpass projects will also relieve congestion on the sea islands. These vital infrastructure projects were needed years ago. Hopefully, transportation officials at the county, state and federal levels will find a way to speed up the permitting process.

We need to take an all-of-the-above approach to improving vehicular transportation in the Lowcountry. Government run bus systems have never been efficient and we have no reason to believe that they will be in the future. It is time to look at setting up HOV lanes on I-26 to encourage carpooling. Large employers and business groups in the tourist district should set up micro-transit networks to serve their employees’ transportation needs. Vans holding up to 14 passengers could pick people up at shopping centers, apartment complexes or large churches. The hospitals could set up a dispatch service to pick up patients at convenient collection points. Time to think outside the box!