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The sales tax referendum is dead
But it could be resurrected
Warwick Jones

Technically, the referendum on a half-cent sales tax is dead. It failed to pass second reading last night. But the quick action by Council member Rawl may lead to its resurrection. He was amongst the members who voted against the referendum ballot. He indicated quickly after the conclusion of the voting that he wanted to change his vote. Whether this will make a difference depends on whether Council meets again, and quickly to discuss the issue.

We understand some Council members had plans that take them out of town over the next week or so. After last night’s performance, we hope that Council will meet shortly and that it will reach a compromise. The County’s road and transportation issues need to be addressed.

Last night’s meeting was long, and sad entertainment. It four hour length entailed a Public Hearing, a presentation by BCDCOG over a proposed Rapid Transit system, an hour-long executive session, and a long “debate” with a series of proposals all of which were voted down. Adjectives such as frustrating, disappointing, incomprehensible, embarrassing and stubborn come to mind. Only Chairman Summey, and Council members Qualey, Sass and Condon supported the second reading.

As Council member Schweers said, the elephant in the room was the completion of I-526. There was no prize for this observation. The issue has divided citizens and Council now for some years. The County voted to move forward with the $700+ million project two years or so ago but has been thwarted by funding, particularly after the State Infrastructure Bank pulled its grant of $420 million. The intention to fund I-526 by the proposed sales tax was signaled in the first draft of the referendum ballot but inexplicably there was no reference on the draft when discussed at the first reading. The issue last night was whether I-526 should be mentioned on the ballot and if so, how?

Council member Pryor fired the first shot with a motion that the proposed sales tax should earmark $200 million for I-526. This went nowhere as did many other proposals such as having a question as to whether citizens favor the completion of I-526. And should the question be part of the sales tax proposal, or stand alone? Council member Rawl made the point that may have escaped most members of the public that the list of projects named in the referendum ballot was only a “wish list”. Council was not committed to them. This may be technically true but Chairman Summey noted that Council was composed of reasonable people who would feel a strong obligation of commitment to the projects.

We could write more about the discussion but cannot summon the fortitude. We refer to the excellent write-up by Abigail Darlington in today’s Post and Courier. Abigail has recently been assigned to cover the County meetings, we understand.

The Public Hearing brought out a host of citizens. Most spoke in favor of I-526 but recognized the magnitude of the funding issue. Mayor Riley was the first to speak and noted the necessity of the completion to provide necessary infrastructure. He advised the County to look for pockets of money – particularly from Federal and State sources to fund the road. Mayor Tecklenberg followed and noted that transportation was vital to solving traffic congestion problems and completion of I- 526 was vital to an efficient transportation system. He also reaffirmed the City’s commitment to assist funding through a proposed toll. Charleston City Council members Moody and Wagner also spoke in support of I-526.

The issues raised by other speakers were generally familiar. Many spoke similarly to the Mayors and Council members, but we noted a representative of the Johns Island Community Association who said that a recent poll of members had 75% of respondents supporting the completion of I-526. Opponents of I-526 largely disputed the benefits of the completion and noted fears of over development and the ruin of Johns Island.
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The presentation by COGS was interesting but stimulated little conversation. The proposed sales tax would raise $2.1 billion of which $609 million would go to CARTA. Much of the $609 million would go towards the implementation of a Rapid Transit system. Initially it will be only a single route - from the City of Charleston (Line Street) to Goose Creek and then to Summerville. Part of the existing roads and highways will be dedicated to Rapid Transit and the system will run along Spruill Avenue for much of its length. The cost is estimated at $360 million. This will include vehicles and the preparation of the roads. The annual operating cost is estimated at $5.9 million. The 23.1 mile corridor with have 18 stations and employ 18 vehicles. The weekly service will run from 4 am to 2 am (next day) and will have 10 minute service at peak time, 20 minute non peak, and 30 minute early and late. Service will be less frequent on Saturdays and Sundays. Travel time along the whole route is estimated at 1 hour.

COGS expects that State and Federal agencies will contribute fund to the system.

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