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A case against the Beaufort County transportation sales tax: Proposal is too rushed

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We all want good roads. But a $250,000 lobbying campaign using bridge panic, glossy mailers and traveling speakers wants you to vote for a premature sales tax for an undefined and possibly bad plan.

Here are the facts:

Only one of the four bridge spans to Hilton Head Island needs repairs. It has a six- to seven-year life before repairs are needed, and that’s in the SCDOT’s plan. Recent SCDOT data shows no serious problems.

SCDOT has a methodical process for planning, as shown at its Sept. 27 public meeting. They will analyze alternatives from roughly mid-2019 to mid-2020, review with the public in mid-2020, and reach a decision by end-2020. This planning is completely independent of our tax referendum.

Plan evaluation needs to consider: traffic capacity and delay, the impact of traffic lights at Squire Pope and Spanish Wells roads, new lights and speed limit restrictions at Windmill Harbor, environmental and cultural impacts, aesthetics, potential bike and pedestrian lanes, costs, and more. There is the possibility that any expensive capacity gains made entering Hilton Head will be counteracted by all those lights. The tax referendum does not consider that and may foster a sub-optimal or defective plan.

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Current projected costs are $253 million, including the Windmill Harbor projects, and could easily reach $300 million with inflation, overruns, errors and add-ons, as we have seen in past large Beaufort County road projects. Some have predicted they could reach $450 million.

By end 2020, according to the SCDOT process, we will have seen and evaluated the alternatives, including the blockage computations, made a rational choice and be ready to begin. That would be the time to consider a road tax to support an evaluated and desired plan. It is always best to measure twice and spend once.

But, some want to deviate from that path by forcing a tax before there is a plan. It is hard to pin them down. When asked, Robert McFee, the county’s director of construction, engineering and facilities, responded: “At this time, no specific corridor improvements have been identified,” and then referred to the SCDOT plan. A need for advance engineering has come up. But the county found the $6 million needed for that elsewhere.

Some say that by raising funds early, we can influence the SCDOT study or funding. Is the county trying to tilt the SCDOT scales to push a favorite back-room plan? Fair-minded taxpayers should be outraged by this.

So why are we rushing this premature tax before we need it in 2020? The county has spent $140,000 of taxpayer money with a PR firm to “educate” the public. But education without conveying all the facts is closer to “advocacy,” which could possibly make it illegal.

Others (in what appears to be a coordinated effort) are also lobbying, including: Realtors and Citizens for Better Roads and Bridges, which is linked to the Chamber of Commerce. Glossy mailers, advertisements and roving speakers abound. Have these lobbyists provided you any written, verifiable facts or been willing to debate in a public forum with the other side?

I am not married to any plan but strongly believe that we need an unbiased, transparent and detailed evaluation of all our options before we spend taxpayer money.

Vote “no” on this version of the sales tax referendum. Let’s see the SCDOT plan and our options first. There is time to do this properly.

Steven M. Baer of Hilton Head Island is a former member of Beaufort County Council.