Monday, June 3, 2019 News

News Coverage chronicling I-526 extension negotiations

by Kate Schaefer

This post has a comprehensive list of news coverage related to the recent Intergovernmental Agreement and actions by Charleston County with half cent sales tax dollars.

News Coverage January 2019-present:

Excerpt: Charleston County is ready to spend more money than they’ve ever spent on any single project to make the Interstate 526 extension a reality. To recap: On Tuesday, after years of disputes, the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank and the county finally reached enough of a consensus on how the road project would be funded to start negotiating a new agreement.

The major selling point, for the bank at least, was that Charleston County agreed to cover anything beyond what the bank had already agreed to — $420 million — when the project was originally envisioned.

Excerpt:” Charleston County’s new deal to complete Interstate 526 is an unprecedented legal and financial commitment by a South Carolina local government — one in which the county has agreed to most of the risk, state officials said Wednesday.”

Excerpt: But state Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla, who led a subcommittee formed especially to scrutinize the deal, said he still had questions, including whether it’s legal for the current Charleston County Council’s ability to bind future councils to a local expense expected to top $300 million. Alexander also asked if the project might face a hurdle because it was not included on the ballot question when county voters were asked to approve a sales tax increase for roads.

Excerpt: The Coastal Conservation League’s attorney has sent the state a detailed letter questioning the deal, and Jason Crowley of the environmental nonprofit sat in on Wednesday’s meeting. The county’s presentation made no mention of how using sales tax money would impact other potential sales tax projects, and Crowley said after the meeting that completing Interstate 526 would jeopardize funding for other projects planned in North Charleston, West Ashley and Mount Pleasant, as well as needed resiliency and drainage projects.

“Instead, every cent is going toward a road that will go from one place that floods to another place that floods,” Crowley said.

Excerpt: Its problems have stemmed from shaky political support in recent years, as well as ballooning costs. DOT Director Christy Hall said Wednesday the most recent estimate places the price tag at $725 million in today’s dollars. She said the department likely will have an updated estimate in about two years, after more early design and permitting work is done.

Hall and state Transportation Infrastructure Bank Chairman John White appeared before a state Joint Bond Review Committee that is scrutinizing — and eventually would need to approve — the new deal.”

Excerpt: “The powerful Florence Republican said at the time that he is not opposed to the project but wants to do more “due diligence” on funding plans. Leatherman also sits on the panel led by Gov. Henry McMaster — the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, that gives final approvals to all major state projects.”

Excerpt: “The Joint Bond Review approved the original 526,” he said. “The model they came up with is so different, it has to go back to Joint Bond Review for approval on that project. It’s a new project as far as the committee is concerned. The price changed, the source of money changed.”

Opinion Editorials:

Excerpt: “Due diligence for a $700 million public project is not to be taken lightly,” says Leatherman, R-Florence. “Charleston needs this and many other traffic improvement projects. A process is now in place, and I’m hopeful we can move this forward.”

Excerpt: “Many things in life are complex. But this is not one of them. It is indisputable that flooding threatens the survival of this 350-year-old city. There  isn’t enough money under rocks or in bake sales to respond to this existential crisis.

Exactly the same funds available to complete I-526 can save the city. And they are the only sources adequate to do the job. The logic that allows County Council members to shift sales tax funding from sales tax projects, like the overpass at U.S. 17 and Main Road and the widening of S.C. 41 in Mount Pleasant, enables them to deploy the taxes in defense of homes, businesses and neighborhoods that flood.”

Excerpt: “The hospital district is crucial to our entire community’s physical and economic health. Flooding renders it dysfunctional and must be addressed. Meanwhile, the county claims that there is excess funding for a project mired in years of controversy, with questionable public support, and even more doubtful long-term improvements for our community. This demonstrates a lack of proper triage as it pertains to road and infrastructure projects in our area. Webster’s defines “triage” as the sorting of patients according to the urgency of their need for care.”

Excerpt: “We live in a region that places much value on “precedent” when considering development and regulation because we fear that with one small misplaced step we could find ourselves at the bottom of a slippery slope. Well, on Feb. 12 County Council took a flying leap off that slippery slope by showing complete disregard for our informed votes and our tax dollars.

Charleston County Council members voted, 7-2, to approve $3.1 million of the half-cent sales tax to fund a project that was never on any list. On Aug. 9, 2016, County Council adopted an ordinance to “define the specific purposes and designate the projects for which the proceeds of the tax may be used.” The ordinance included the following list of transportation projects that would be covered with money brought in by the tax.”

Excerpt: And the I-526 extension debate has hijacked a much-needed public discussion about the future of the region — about projects like bus rapid transit and flood relief — in favor of a pointless war of words about a road the Department of Transportation’s own projections suggest will cut 36 seconds off of the average trip from Savannah Highway to downtown Charleston.

2016 Referendum Coverage

Excerpt: In Charleston County, 51 percent voted for the half-cent sales tax increase, raising the total sales tax rate in the county to 9 percent. The additional tax will raise $2.1 billion to fund mass transit, road improvements and more greenspace. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who endorsed the half-cent sales tax, saw it as a victory. More than half the money will be spent on about a dozen road projects, including the widening of S.C. Highway 41 and Dorchester Road. About $600 million will go to the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority to improve its fleet of buses and develop the area’s first bus rapid transit system.

  • November 2, 2016 Local officials support Charleston County’s half-cent sales tax

Excerpt: Sass said the controversial completion of Interstate 526 is not part of the referendum, and he thinks it never should have been. Extending Interstate “526 and this are two separate issues,” he said.

Excerpt: Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg aided the faltering prospects of the pending half-cent sales tax referendum Thursday by formally withdrawing a plan to link the vote to the controversial I-526 project. Doing so simplifies the issue and gives the referendum a chance to pass on Nov. 8.

Excerpt: It is unfortunate that the half-cent sales tax and the Mark Clark project were being discussed at the same time in the last six months.

As I have said many times, each needs to be considered separately. The half-penny sales tax program Charleston County Council passed this summer, which is on the November ballot, was the result of careful study of our road and transit needs and did not include funding for the Mark Clark.

Excerpt: Groups that oppose the road across Johns and James Islands — including Nix 526 and the Coastal Conservation League — already have said they would not support a half-cent sales tax referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot. Future income from that sales tax is required to fund a deal that could indirectly allow the road project to move forward.

But now, several groups that think I-526 desperately needs to be completed also are publicly opposing the referendum, largely because they don’t trust local officials to build the road even if the referendum passes.

Excerpt: Charleston County Council on Thursday shot down a proposed sales tax referendum after failing to agree on whether Interstate 526 should be funded with the money, or built at all.

Excerpt: Prior to Tuesday night’s Charleston County Council meeting, a list of proposed half-cent sales tax projects included the largest and most controversial road project in the county, the completion of Interstate 526.

But when the council voted to put the referendum on the November ballot, I-526 had disappeared from the list — and no one said why, or asked.

Why it disappeared, how it got on the list in the first place and what happened in between remains unclear.

Editorials

  • Topic – legal concerns June 1, 2019: Editorial: Council should answer legal concerns about 526 funding

Excerpt:Charleston County officials have recently argued that 526 should qualify for half-cent sales tax funds because the referendum question voters approved in 2016 didn’t specifically list projects. But the ordinance did, and 526 was very conspicuously not among those listed.

In fact, County Council voted in July 2016 to remove it from the ordinance.

It’s true that the ordinance specifies that the sales tax revenue would be used for projects “which may include” but are not “limited to” the listed efforts — an intersection upgrade at Main Road and Highway 17, widening the Glenn McConnell Parkway and about a dozen other needs.

This is sensible given the difficulty of accurately assessing all future road needs and cost estimates over a 25-year period.

But voters might rightly presume that “including but not limited to” means that sales tax revenue should be spent on other projects only if and when the listed ones are funded and preferably completed.

Indeed, state law and court rulings tend to suggest that ballot referendum questions should be as explicit and limited in scope as possible so that voters know exactly what they’re voting on. In this case, they were clearly told they would not be voting on I-526.

  • Topic – Other priorities May 21, 2019: Editorial: A shot at real relief for Johns Island

Excerpt: “It’s concerning that County Council has committed at least $330 million from the same pot of money to I-526 instead of to the other projects — like the Main Road improvements — that voters thought they were agreeing to pay for in 2016 when they approved a half-cent transportation sales tax.

But it’s encouraging that the county is finally getting around to upgrading Main Road and Highway 17, and residents of Johns Island should keep up the pressure to make sure that the process moves as smoothly and quickly as is reasonable.”

  • Topic – Other priorities April 7, 2019: Editorial: Charleston County can fund I-526, but it shouldn’t

Excerpt: “According to county officials’ presentation on Wednesday, the plan for 526 remains to use funds from the 2004 and 2016 half-cent sales taxes that voters approved to pay for a combination of road projects, mass transit and Greenbelt investments. Spending that money on 526 is underhanded at best, considering that County Council had rather explicitly stated on several occasions prior to the vote on the second half-cent sales tax that it would not be used to pay for the controversial project.”

Excerpt: “People respond to reduced congestion by driving more, living farther from the urban core and adjusting their commute schedules, which eventually eliminates any initial improvements and often leaves people worse off than before.”

 

 

 

 


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