Legacy of the half-cent: Tax increase doubles road resurfacing budget

Over 600 miles of road resurfaced since the tax was enacted.

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When Charleston County Deputy Administrator of Transportation and Public Works Jim Armstrong thinks about how the county used to handle road repairs, he talks about “pink slip resurfacing.”

“Someone would call, the secretary would write down the message on a pink slip and put it on your desk,” he told Palmetto Business Daily. “So I’d have a pile of pink slips on my desk of people complaining that their road needs to be paved.”

Since 1993, local governments have been in charge of the gas tax funds collected by the federal government for road improvements. In Charleston County, this meant local administrators had to figure out how to manage roughly $2 million per year in funds. Under the “pink slip” system, and with limited funds, Armstrong said he couldn’t tell complaining residents when their roads would be fixed.

That flipped with two major changes — the creation of a pavement management database and the passage of a half-cent sales tax increase, which roughly doubled the road resurfacing projects annual budget.

“We went from somebody calling up and asking, ‘when is my road going to be repaved?,' to telling people that ‘your road has these types of distresses and it looks like it’s going to be about two years before your road gets repaved,’” Armstrong said. “And, almost overnight, people were happy with that.”

The half-cent sales tax increase was passed by voters in 2004 to collect roughly $1.3 billion over the next 25 years for transportation projects. Among the money collected, $4 million each year was earmarked for resurfacing projects. This came on top of the gas tax “c funds” the county managed, which Armstrong said averages roughly $3.5 million per year.

“It was a real boost to resurfacing," he said. "Since the inception of our sales tax program, we have resurfaced over 600 miles of roads. I’m not afraid to tell you that 90 percent or 95 percent of that 600 miles would not have been paved today were it not for the (gas tax) and our sales tax program.”

Receiving the money was only one piece of the puzzle. Armstrong also credited the success of recent resurfacing efforts with its pavement management program, a database he said has been repeatedly recognized by the South Carolina Department of Transportation as the best in the state. Using this system, workers routinely analyze roads. Using known research on the materials as well as on-the-ground analysis, the department is able to plan for when a road gets repaired, instead of reacting after it gets too bad.

The system has also allowed the county to apply treatments that extend the life of roads. When applied soon enough, micro resurfacing, chip seals and other treatments cost less than a full repair and can extend the life of a road. One county worker equated it to applying a water sealant to a wooden patio deck.

“It’s allowed us to get more money for our dollar — or, more bang for the buck, is the more popular terminology,” Armstrong said.

A referendum on whether to "complete the penny" by passing another half-cent tax increase will appear on the ballots of Charleston County voters this November 8th. 

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Charleston County, South Carolina South Carolina Department of Transportation

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