Would you be willing to pay an extra penny in sales tax for every dollar you spend at the store to make driving around Beaufort County a smoother experience?
You may have a chance to decide in 2018.
Beaufort County leaders hosted a workshop and the first public comment session Wednesday evening at the St. Helena Branch Library on a proposal to bring a sales tax increase referendum to a vote in November of next year to raise $120 million for transportation projects.
The lion’s share of that revenue, $80 million — raised over a period of four years by adding a penny tax to every dollar spent in the county — would be used to widen or replace the aging and often congested Hilton Head Island bridges, according to county plans.
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The remainder of funds for the estimated $240 million project could come from already allocated S.C. Department of Transportation funds and, potentially, the state transportation infrastructure bank, interim Beaufort County administrator Josh Gruber said.
Gruber said anyone who has recently made the trip to Hilton Head Island recognizes that “the time it takes to get onto and off of the island is much greater” than in the past.
Councilman Brian Flewelling said, “Imagine what would happen if part of the bridge were to collapse.”
“The risk to the county (both in terms of safety and in terms of traffic impacts) is too great,” he said.
The council has granted preliminary approval for the referendum earlier this month and final approval could come as soon as next month. There are two more workshops on the referendum scheduled over the next several weeks.
The money raised by the new tax — which would bring the tax from 6 percent to 7 percent — would fund “strictly transportation related items,” Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart said.
In addition to the Hilton Head Island bridge project, sales tax revenue would be allocated for traffic improvements on Lady’s Island along the Sea Island Parkway corridor between the Woods Memorial Bridge and the Chowan Creek Bridge, and for new sidewalks and pathways throughout the county.
This relatively concise list of projects reflects a stark contrast between the potential 2018 sales tax referendum and the failed 2016 referendum.
“We are looking at a very specific” group of projects, Stewart said.
Last year’s referendum aimed to raise roughly $130 million for about three dozen capital infrastructure projects, a handful of which were later funded through a bond sale.
However, some members of the public in attendance Wednesday spoke in favor of using the tax revenue for other projects such as paving dirt roads or bridge repairs on Lady’s Island.
Other comments questioned whether a sales tax — which impacts all county residents equally, regardless of income or place of residence — is the best way to raise money for transportation projects, particularly if much of the funds are to be used south of the Broad River.
Stewart said estimates suggest about a third of the burden of the extra taxed would be shouldered by tourists and visitors.
While the revenue that would be raised by the county’s sales tax would mainly be used for larger, long-term projects, there are some shorter term efforts to improve the transportation already underway.
County and S.C. Department of Transportation leaders announced earlier this week plans to change the pattern of traffic signals along U.S. 278 to help cut down on backups in greater Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island.