Roughly 15 years ago, the widening of Johnnie Dodds Boulevard in Mount Pleasant was a “priority” with no foreseeable future, but today it stands as something of a testament to the power of local action, according to Jim Armstrong, the Charleston County deputy administrator of Transportation and Public Works.
“I would argue, today, after it’s been finished for several years, it still functions very well from a capacity standpoint,” Armstrong told Palmetto Business Daily. “Plus, it’s probably one of the most attractive infrastructure projects that’s been built in the state in a very long time. It’s just a good looking project.”
Though technically a state-maintained road, the $84 million Johnnie Dodds project was financed exclusively by local taxpayer dollars — specifically, a referendum passed by voters in 2004 to increase sales tax in Charleston County by half a cent for either 25 years or until $1.303 billion had been raised. Roughly $850 million of that money would be earmarked for projects, such as the Johnnie Dodds widening.
With the completion of the Ravenel Bridge on the horizon, the town of Mount Pleasant faced the prospect of a eight-lane road bottlenecking at the four-lane road. The Charleston Area Transportation Study (CHAT) Committee, a part of the Council of Governments that included neighboring Berkeley and Dorchester counties, had long identified the road on the other side of the bridge, Johnnie Dodds, as in need of expansion as part of its long-range improvement plans. No one at the county level knew at that time, however, who would pay for the state-maintained road’s improvement.
“There was truly no funding vehicle, no pun intended, in sight for the bulk of these projects for the foreseeable future,” Armstrong said.
The journey from pipe dream to pipe-laying began, Armstrong said, as far back as 2000. Initially proposed on a 2000 ballot, a narrowly defeated measure seeking a similar tax increase led Armstrong and other to return to the drawing board to present a re-worded measure for voters in 2002. That measure passed, he said, but was then challenged, and defeated, in the state supreme court due to wording issues.
“Being the slow learners we are, we tried again in 2004,” Armstrong said.
This time, the measure passed, and collection began in 2005.
But it would be a while before shovels could begin moving. A project that large, according to a spokesman with Charleston County, required multiple years of environmental assessments. Concept reports came forward in fall of 2008, and crews wouldn’t break ground until 2010.
Even so, Armstrong argued that waiting for the state to find the funding would have set the project back indefinitely. With the new money, the county was able to enter into an “cooperative intergovernmental agreement” that allowed Charleston County the ability to manage the project with its locally raised funds.
“We do things ourselves,” Armstrong said. “The state takes too long to do things, and they have other priorities.”
The Johnnie Dodds project was ultimately completed in early 2013, exclusively using the fund from the half-cent sales tax increase. In that time, Armstrong said he’s proud that the groundbreaking funding model has come to serve as what he called a “big brother” to governments throughout the state that are facing their own infrastructure deficits.
“I’m sure that there was a lot of doubt that we at the local government would be able to handle some of these large infrastructure projects,” he said. “But we’ve shown that local government can do great things.”
Even within Charleston County, a nonprofit group, Charleston County Voters for Transportation Inc., has circulated a petition called “Complete the Penny,” calling for an additional half-cent sales tax referendum to go on this November’s ballot.
Neighboring Berkeley County recently passed its second, seven-year, one-cent sales tax increase.
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