At midafternoon, traffic is lined up bumper to bumper on Main Street in downtown Lexington. Local officials are searching for ways to pay for fixing and improving roads because state leaders have not passed a transportation funding plan. (Photo/Chuck Crumbo)
By Chris Cox
Published Oct. 14, 2015
From the Sept. 28, 2015, print edition
Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall has one grand vision for his town’s newest 2% meal tax. And it goes far beyond just paying for road repairs.
“As conservative as we are in Lexington, for us to do this, it is going to create a larger conversation which will help the entire state,” he said. “Because it is going to make people understand that they have got to do something on the state level to fund the (Transportation Department). Either restructure it and fund it or restructure it and figure out where the money is going.
“It’s going to create a larger conversation, and I really think things are going to change this year because of what we did.”
Lexington is not unique. Cities and counties all across South Carolina are coming up with their own creative ways to repair long-ignored bridges and roads, as the legislature ended the 2015 session failing to provide enough funding to support the troublesome state of infrastructure.
“Counties are frustrated,” said Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill. “They’re getting calls from their constituents who are saying, ‘There are potholes in my street, I called the state and the state said it’s a county road and the county said it’s the state’s.’ The constituent, the tax payer, doesn’t care who owns the road. They want the pothole fixed.”
York County’s Simrill knows Lexington’s frustrations as well as anyone. Facing a high growth rate its roads could not account for, his district passed its own rendition of an infrastructure solution in a penny increase on general sales tax.
Similar cases have popped up in Spartanburg, where a fee is charged when a resident registers a vehicle, and Columbia and Richland County also have meal taxes like Lexington. So, too, does Cayce. Columbia and Richland County voters addressed their road issue in 2012 by passing the Transportation Penny Program, which raised the local county tax to 8 cents from 7 cents.
“The frustration that we felt in York County forced us to act,” Simrill said. “We could not wait on the state. The growth was here and in order to be able to realize the positive from that growth, we didn’t have any choice but to do this.”
Lexington’s tax, which will begin collecting Oct. 1 and run through December 2023, is projected to generate $2 million annually. Approved by council members 5-1, it will pay for a trio of road repairs aimed to reduce congestion and fix busy intersections. The projects are projected to cost about $14 million.
Plans call for S.C. 6 and Church Street to become one-way streets and traffic circles added on Corley Mill Road and at S.C. 6 and U.S. 378. A side lane off Corley Mill Road is also planned for U.S. 378 and Interstate 20.
The tax will be tacked onto restaurant meals, take-out food and some snacks.
“Our state, federal governments have failed us as local entities, so we’ve had to get creative on how we can do it,” MacDougall said. “We have to be the ones who stand up, take the lead and be the courageous leaders that we are and make that change and take the heat for it, to be frank.
“It’s so long overdue in Lexington that we had to react and we had to do something. We’ve been talking about traffic for too many years now and having a lot of people say shoulda, woulda, coulda. And we’re not going to do that, we’re going to do something about it. We’re going to fix it.”
Reba Campbell, executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, hears these concerns often. At organizational meetings, city leaders often echo MacDougall’s disappointment with their communities having to foot the bill for these pricey projects, she said.
“Everybody is looking for different ways to solve the problem because they know the money isn’t going to come from the state,” she said, “and what money is going to come from the state is probably not going to be quick in getting to them.”
Simrill has been at the heart of a possible solution. As chairman of the House Transportation Infrastructure and Management Ad Hoc Committee, he helped craft the roads bill during the 2015 session that passed the House before ultimately failing in the Senate.
The House plan would have added more than $400 million in state spending toward roads. It featured a 10-cent gas tax increase and a $200 raise in vehicle sales tax. The bill would task out-of-state drivers with help in funding South Carolina roads while treating its own residents right, Simrill said.
But the House and Senate never got on the same page. Neither did Gov. Nikki Haley, who offered her own plan of a 10-cent gas tax increase over three years while cutting the state’s top income tax bracket to 5% and reforming the DOT.
“It’s like the old saying, ‘Everybody complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it,’” Simrill said. “Unfortunately that saying applies to roads. Everybody complains about the roads but nobody does anything about it.”
Until the state steps in with significant aid, places like Lexington will be left to fend for themselves. And that is often easier said than done, Campbell said.
“It’s like with anything that’s going to require a new infusion of dollars,” she said. “There’s a lot of limitation on how cities and counties can raise local revenue. There’s a lot of restrictions put on in state law. There’s not a whole lot of flexibility in sources that the General Assembly has given local governments to use to raise that revenue.”
With election year coming fast, perhaps the 2016 session will present a solution to road repair. But until then …
“Until we get a statewide, comprehensive DOT reform and funding bill passed, counties are going to continue to be more frustrated,” Simrill said. “Unfortunately, the residents of those counties end up paying more of the tab than less of the tab.”
Reach Chris Cox at 803-726-7545 or on Twitter @chrisbcox.