Legacy of the half-cent: Boost in funding puts Charleston County at head of bike-friendly trend

When voters in Charleston County passed a half-cent sales tax increase in 2004, bike and pedestrian paths weren’t popular, Deputy Administrator of Transportation and Public Works Jim Armstrong said recently.

When voters in Charleston County passed a half-cent sales tax increase in 2004, bike and pedestrian paths weren’t popular,  Deputy Administrator of Transportation and Public Works Jim Armstrong said recently. 

“And then around 2008, bicycle and pedestrian projects became the most important thing on Earth,” he told Palmetto Business Daily.

Luckily for planners, money raised by the tax went directly to transportation projects, including $500,000 annually earmarked to make the county more friendly to bikers, walkers and joggers.

“When we started our program back in 2004, bike and pedestrian traffic wasn’t that big of a deal; it wasn’t that popular,” Armstrong said. “What we did, what we do, is that all of our projects are designed using the complete street projects.”

“Complete streets” is a traffic design philosophy that looks at road projects as being built to accommodate all traffic--not just cars. In this sense, each project, from South Bend, Indiana to Charleston County, is uniquely designed to allow for bike, foot and even special lanes for bus traffic.

On Johns Island, for example, Armstrong’s team is completing the design for congestion-alleviating pitchfork roads off of Maybank Highway that add sidewalks and a “multi-use” lane.

Other projects, however, don’t have the benefit of completely new roads. Armstrong points to one project, which he called “Steele Avenue,” where the five-lane road has slowly seen a decline in traffic over the years. When it was resurfaced, it was re-worked to maintain the overall width, but reduced to two car lanes, a shared left-turn lane and bike lanes going in each direction.

“When we went in for scheduled resurfacing, we worked with the Department of Transportation and bicycle groups to give it a ‘lane diet,’” Armstrong said.

Armstrong did not hazard to guess the impact that the addition of complete streets has had on the traffic of the Charleston area. Though he said the paths have mostly been a “quality of life” improvement for residents, he noted the region is seeing rapid growth that would impact traffic overall.

“It’s kind of hard to tell because we’ve got about 50 new people a day moving into the area,” Armstrong said. “So it’s kinda hard to judge all that.”

In the meantime, the program continues to receive funding under the property tax increase, the majority of which has been used to fund a number of county road projects that would have otherwise been stymied by state-level funding limitations. The tax will remain in effect until 2030, or until $1.3 billion has been raised, whichever happens first.

In just over a decade since its implementation, Armstrong said he was proud of what the local funding has been able to accomplish for the community, as well as the impact it has had across the state.

“There are a lot of counties in South Carolina that have taken it upon themselves to tax the citizens of their county to offer up road improvements,” Armstrong said. “I’m really proud to tell you they look at us as being the ‘big brother’... . I’m really proud with the way our program has progressed over the last 12 years.”

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