Voters in Charleston County may be asked to vote on a ballot measure this November for a half-cent sales tax increase to fund local infrastructure projects.
Supporters say it would "complete the penny," adding on to an existing half-cent sales tax passed in 2004.
The funds generated from that existing half-cent tax, which will be collected only until 2030, were carefully earmarked for road and related transportation projects. Among the first projects to benefit from the new funds was the widening of Johnnie Dodds Boulevard in rapidly-growing Mount Pleasant.
“On the heels of unprecedented residential growth in Mount Pleasant, Charleston County was able to successfully deliver the widening of Johnnie Dodds Boulevard, which is the main artery serving the businesses and residences in that community,” Rhett Reidenbach, president of Reveer Group and a board member of the Trident CEO Council, told Palmetto Business Daily in February. “The investment in our region’s infrastructure has had a positive impact on business.”
The success of that half-cent sales tax was used as a model in Berkeley County, where voters last year approved a 1 cent sales tax increase, good for the next seven years. It’s the second time the county has passed such a measure, with the first increase passing in 2008 and potentially generating roughly $125 million in tax revenue to complete more than a dozen projects throughout the county.
Elaine Morgan, executive director of the Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce, said the sales tax will help to alleviate much of the "pain" felt by local commuters from growing traffic issues.
“People do not address something until they feel the pain,” she told Palmetto Business Daily. “And then they adjust.”
Clements Ferry Road, she said, is one of those projects where people are beginning to feel the pain. The road, which spans Daniel’s Island, just north of the city of Charleston, is what she calls a “nuisance,” and in desperate need of reworking.
Leaders in Berkeley County have a plan that includes widening the road and even replacing the bridge that spans the Wando River and goes into Mount Pleasant, where Morgan said many of the “exploding” population commutes. But those projects carry a price tag in excess of $50 million — $22 million of that just for the road. As the state continues to sluggishly recover from the recession, that kind of infrastructure investment can be hard to come by.
The 1 cent sales tax approved last year will provide funding for these projects. Morgan said the revenue not only gave the county a much-needed shot in the arm for fixing roads, but also allowed it to capitalize on state and federal matching grants. For every dollar spent by Berkeley County from the sales tax, a 2013 Metro Area Chamber of Commerce white paper found, an additional 57 cents was added.
“I have a lot of people say they think the state should fix our roads,” Morgan said. “But sometimes we have to take the initiative when its not being done. This is one of those times. When we have this kind of growth, we have to ensure we have safe roads.”
Morgan said that such a local sales tax option isn't a good fit for every county, but for those, such as Berkeley, where there has been an explosion of growth in new jobs and new residents, it makes sense.
“What’s happened is that we’ve gotten so behind not doing what should have been done, that it’s gotten overwhelming a bit,” she said.
With the approval of the latest sales tax, crews expect to begin work on the two-year-long Clements Ferry Road project by the end of 2016. The project will widen the two-lane road to four lanes from I-526 to Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant, a span of roughly 10 miles. Phase one will address the span from I-526 to Jack Primus Road, while the second phase will span four-and-a-half miles from Jack Primus Road to where it Clements Ferry merges with Highway 41.
As of June, the county had secured 16 of the 112 right-of-way tracts necessary to complete the first phase. Meanwhile, the new Highway 41 bridge, which connects Mount Pleasant and Berkeley County a few miles east of Charleston, is expected to be completed in fall 2017.