Midlands residents joust over proposed transportation tax

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WACH) - Dozens of supporters of a penny sales tax in Richland County to support transportation launched a campaign Wednesday urging residents to vote yes for the tax on the November ballot.

The Citizens for a Greater Midlands group, which includes residents, local politicians and commerce officials, is pitching the positives of the potential tax as a vote for more jobs, better roads and local control over road projects.

"The future of this community has to be determined by this community," said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin. "Local control is very important. We cannot look to the state or the federal government to make some of these major infrastructure projects happen."

If approved, the tax proposal would up Richland County's sales tax rate to eight percent, and would drum up dollars for road improvements. bike and pedestrian projects, and buses over a 22 year period.

Local officials have been holding public information sessions on the issue to allow the general to ask questions about the proposal ahead of the November 6 vote. A similar proposal was narrowly voted down by Richland County voters in 2010. Critics said the plan was too confusing and didn't make clear what the money generated would fund.

Columbia resident Robert Triplett had plenty of questions about the proposal when he attended the information session Wednesday night at the Richland County Public Library. He was one of dozens crowding the downtown Columbia library branch looking for answers.

"I came with a skeptical attitude which is typical me," said Triplett. "And I would say I got some answers."

Opponents of the penny sales tax rallied in downtown Columbia Wednesday afternoon. They criticize local leaders for pushing a tax they think is too high and for grabbing as much money as possible for other projects, by positioning the plan as a way to save the long-struggling regional bus system.

The opposition says it floated a quarter of a penny sales tax proposal to local leadership, but their efforts were turned down.

"They get federal dollars, they get state dollars for roads. Where's all that money going? ," said Don Weaver of Citizens Against the Tax Increase. "Besides, the buses could be saved for $9 million a year. This tax raises $50 million a year. So why are they asking the people of Richland County for that extra money? "

Despite all the political posturing on both sides of the argument, people like Robert Triplett just want to know how their penny could be spent

"We need to be a standard-bearer for public transportation. We are the capital city of South Carolina," said Triplett.

If voters approve the penny tax, it will be enacted in May 2013. It is set to last for a 22-year period, but, local officials say if their goal of $1.07 billion is reached before then, the tax will cease.

Click here to learn more about how the money would be spent and specific road projects it would pay for in Richland County.