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Half cent sales tax - A much more certain path

G. Robert George, P.L.S., P.E.
Councilmember, District 12
The City of Charleston

Almost two years ago to the day, I authored an article, "More certain path: A regional alliance to solve land-use, transit issues," published in the Post & Courier on October 22, 2002. Recent public debate, press coverage, and an intense personal interest in the upcoming one-half percent sales tax referendum prompted my review of the published article, my previous 2002 research materials, and current research sources. Surprisingly, the primary issues and concerns remain unchanged, albeit more defined in certain key aspects: Lack of specific accountability measures, absence of coordinated regional planning protocols, and questionable interpretations of specific requirements set forth in the Act- Title 4, Chapter 37 "Optional Methods for Financing Transportation Facilities," which establishes the taxing authority for transportation-related projects.

It is not coincidental that the first three Sections of the Act address the establishment, rights and powers, and procurement methods of a "transportation authority" established by referendum to create an intergovernmental authority "…with other counties." The Act clearly provides the necessary procedures to create such a regional transportation authority. It is also not coincidental that Charleston County Council, specifically, in Section 1 (b) of their Ordinance authorizing the sales tax referendum, "…decided to provide funding for roads, mass transit, and greenbelts, inter alia, without the complexity of a transportation authority or entering into… agreements with one or more governmental entities." In one brief stroke, our County Council rejected both the opportunity for voters to delegate specific accountability, rights and powers to an autonomous transportation authority and the opportunity to create a regional authority responsible for coordinated transportation-related projects within the tri-county area. Should the proposed referendum succeed, this lost opportunity could be reflected in future inappropriate, uncoordinated projects driven by special interest groups, political pressure from other elected officials, parochial single-member council district pressures to "bring home the bacon" and, lastly, "good old boy" cronyism.

We need not look further than current development pressures in the Ashley River Plantation District to find clear evidence of what will happen if the Glenn McConnell Parkway Extension is facilitated by the $7 million bonded Glenn McConnell Parkway/Bees Ferry Road Intersection Project to be constructed with some of the first sales tax revenues. The developers of the 6,630 acre Watson Hill Tract are on record as stating that this sales tax funded expressway project is critical to their development plans. Likewise, the recent "flap" over the failed City annexation of Poplar Grove and several other large adjoining tracts in both Charleston and Dorchester Counties is another example of significant inter-county development that should be coordinated by a regional transportation authority. Arguably, such an authority should represent all of Charleston County, lower Dorchester County including the greater Summerville Area and all areas southeast of SC Route 165, and lower Berkeley County including Hanahan, Goose Creek and the Cainhoy Peninsula to the National Forest.

Regarding separate questions for each purpose, the Act offers seemingly clear guidance in Section 4-37-40A(3): "A separate question must be included on the referendum ballot for each purpose…". Given the recent opinion of the State Attorney General and the pending question now before the State Supreme Court, voters have reason again to question the collective wisdom of County Council; their recent track record on the property tax cap debacle and biased wording of the previous sales tax referendum dose not instill confidence in their ability to properly administer, prioritize and fund large, expensive transportation-related projects. Again, an autonomous, regionally accountable authority with specific, albeit limited, powers and responsibilities would be a more responsible option. Unfortunately, the lack of separate ballot questions for each purpose may have sown the seeds of another legal challenge and protracted battle through the courts.

Greenbelts--undeveloped land around a city: a strip of undeveloped land around a city that contains parks, farms, or vacant land. Apparently, few local elected officials really want to know what this word means. A word search of our State Code of Laws offers no definition; the only reference to "greenbelts" is found in Section 4-37-30(A)(1)(a)(i) of the Act. This reference states in part, that "The ordinance must specify: (a) the project or projects…for which the proceeds of the tax are to be used…which may include: (i) highways, roads, streets, bridges, mass transit systems, greenbelts, and other transportation-related project facilities…". This grouping of greenbelts with the other allowable projects infers that such projects are to all be transportation-related. However, recent Post & Courier articles and various proponent statements infer, not too subtly, that greenbelt projects should include "recreational opportunities," possibly "…everything from boat ramps to public parks to comprehensive aquatic centers…"(P&C, Oct. 5, 2004); other recreational uses recently mentioned included major sports venues, possibly a new football stadium. Significantly, there is a total absence of any reference to the words recreation or recreational projects linked to greenbelts in the Act; greenbelts are simply listed together with all other allowable transportation-related projects. Likewise, it is also significant that County Council's Ordinance specifically separated the financing of greenbelts from all other transportation-related projects by creating a separate "Project (2)" listed under Question 1 on the Referendum Ballot. Was it Council's intent to separate greenbelts from transportation-related projects and allow recreational projects to be funded from sales tax revenues? Given the recent line-up of proposed recreational uses, there are few other logical interpretations. Thus the seeds of another legal challenge are sown.

Recently, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce claimed in The Mercury October 14, 2004 Edition: "We are the second most congested community in the country…". Internet research at the USDOT Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the Texas Transportation Institute offers more analytical, fact-based findings. The TTI's latest Travel Time Index Table lists the Charleston-North Charleston area as ranking 54th with a Travel Time Index of 1.18 among 85 nationally ranked urban areas; this index increased from 1.08 in 1982 to 1.18 in 2002. Given an illustrative "free flow" travel time of 20 minutes (an Index of 1.00), a peak congestion travel time of 21.6 minutes in 1982 (an Index of 1.08) increased to 23.6 minutes in 2002 (an Index of 1.18). A two minute increase in congested travel time after twenty years of near explosive growth is not unexpected, all other things considered. Other published findings in the latest TTI Report indicate that the Charleston region ranked 49th among 85 national urban areas in Annual Hours Delay per traveler - 22 hours in 2002 up from 18 hours in 1996. The USDOT BTS "Annual Roadway Congestion Index" ranked Charleston as 13th (1996-2001) among "small regions" (population less than 500,000) with a Congestion Index of 0.95 (the small regions average Index is 0.85; an Index of 1.00 is the accepted threshold of undesirable congestion). Yes, the Charleston area has reason for concern about traffic congestion, but, No, we're not the second most congested community in the country.

Interestingly, the latest Texas Transportation Institute Mobility Data for Charleston-North Charleston reported the 2002 Travel Time Index with the current public transportation strategy (with CARTA) in place to be 1.176. The Base Travel Time Index without public transportation (without CARTA) was 1.179. In the previous 20 minute illustration, this equates to an increase of less than 4 seconds without the current public transit system. This particular data calls to question the often reported "effectiveness" of CARTA in reducing travel time congestion for automobile commuters in greater Charleston and confirms what most drivers intuitively know; nearly empty buses contribute little to congestion relief. For mass-transit to be a more time-efficient, convenient, and competitive alternative in the greater Charleston area, it must be restructured on a demand based model, not the supply based, inefficient system now offered by the current CARTA Director and Board. CARTA desperately needs new leadership and reorganization from the top down.

No autonomous transportation authority, questionable accountability, lack of project specificity, and no inter-county transportation planning protocols are all sound reasons to vote against the ½ percent sales tax on November 2nd. As a region, we can and must do better. Charleston County should use the next two years to work with Dorchester and Berkeley Counties to comprehensively address transportation problems and inter-county growth before voting on the transportation-related sales tax referendum again.

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