Officials laud road projects as county transportation sales tax set to expire Sept. 30

cconley@ilsandpacket.comAugust 18, 2012 

The sister bridge to the J.E. McTeer Bridge, top right, was funded with the Beaufort County one percent sales tax. The tax also helped build some phases of the Bluffton Parkway, bottom right. The tax, which generated nearly $152 million for road projects over the last five years, came to an end Sept. 30.

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Beaufort County's 1-percent transportation sales tax is expiring Sept. 30, about six months ahead of schedule.

As a result, the county's sales tax rate will revert to 6 percent on most items starting Oct. 1. The change also will eliminate sales taxes altogether on most grocery items.

County voters approved the tax in 2006, and it took effect a year later. In that time, it has raised nearly $152 million for road construction and improvements across the county.

"With these funds, the county has been able to complete many extensive projects, even with road impact fees coming in less than originally budgeted due to the downturn in the economy," David Starkey, the county's chief financial officer, said in a statement.

The tax was to sunset after six years, or once the $152 million cap was met, county spokeswoman Joy Nelson explained. The county expects to reach that amount next month.

Through the years, the tax has allowed the county to build part of the Bluffton Parkway, improve Boundary Street in Beaufort and begin widening projects on U.S. 278 and S.C. 170. It also helped fund the U.S 17 widening project to the Colleton County line and repave portions of William Hilton Parkway on Hilton Head Island, among others.

The $50 million widening of Lady's Island Drive, which included adding a second McTeer Bridge span, was paid for with the 1 percent tax revenue. It also will be part of the funding mix for the estimated $31 million flyover bridge connecting U.S. 278 with Bluffton Parkway.

That revenue stream also allowed the county to tap about $76 million in state and federal transportation grants and matching funds. The S.C. 170 widening from U.S. 278 to S.C. 46 slated to begin this fall, for instance, received about $25 million in state and federal funds and less than $7 million in local funds.

It is too late to place a referendum on the fall 2012 ballot asking voters to approve another sales-tax referendum, and thus far there has been no discussion of a new tax by County Council.

But that doesn't mean the issue will never be revisited.

In fact, County Council Vice Chairman Paul Sommerville predicted Friday that would happen sooner rather than later. The main reason, he said, is so much state transportation funding is awarded in the form of matching funds.

"Realistically, going forward, that is going to have to be the way we do it or the infrastructure is going to be falling apart," he said.

In the interim, Nelson said the county would seek state and federal funds to continue road construction and maintenance efforts.

Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.

Related content:

Flyover bridge, S.C. 170 widening projects to begin this fall, June 24, 2012

Tax hike less popular north of Broad, Nov. 9, 2006

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