I get off the sidelines, and take a stand: Pass the penny sales tax for transportation

Caroline Whitson speaks to the gathering at the Penny Sales Tax campaign kickoff.

You know that press conference that they had at the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce Thursday to support the sales tax referendum for transportation Thursday? I was there, and not as a blogger. I mean, I’m always a blogger — here I am writing about it — but that’s not why I was there.

I was there to support the referendum. Ike McLeese and Betty Gregory with the Chamber had asked a group of supporters (and I had told them I was willing to help) to show up so that the media people could see a nice cross-section of the community willing to stand up for it.

This would not be a big deal for most people, but it is for me. I’ve always been a professional observer, which is to say, I’ve always been on the sidelines. Sure, I’ve been telling people in writing where I stand on issues off and on since the early ’70s, when I was the editorial page editor of The Helmsman, the student newspaper at Memphis State. And ever since I joined The State‘s editorial board in ’94, I’ve not only written what I thought about all and sundry, but I’ve also always been clear about my views when I speak to groups in the community.  In fact, since we were SO strongly against the state lottery, and we were so committed to using any venue we could in trying (against all odds) to defeat it, I actually argued against it in some public debates in the months leading up to the referendum. My good friend Samuel Tenenbaum and I had a regular road show going — he would be “pro” and I would be “anti.” I had right on my side, but of course his side won.

But this is different. I have agreed, in writing, to be a public supporter of an issue before voters on the November ballot.

Why have I taken this stand? Well, I’ll tell ya…

In some ways, it’s an unlikely place to start being involved. If I’d tried to predict it, I would have said I’d save myself for something big, and statewide — say, helping Vincent Sheheen get elected. As y’all know, I have held for many years that THE most important electoral decision voters make every four years is choosing a governor. With our state being so dominated by the Legislature, and the Legislature by nature being extremely resistant to change, the only way our state is ever going to stop being last where we want to be first and first where we want to last is for someone elected statewide to use the bully pulpit (which is about the only tool the governor has) to exert a counterbalancing force for reform and progress. And it is especially critical that Sheheen be elected rather than the Sanford disciple he’s up against. But beyond what I write here, I’m not doing anything to help him. (Disclosure: ADCO Interactive did the new Sheheen Web site, but I was not and am not involved with that project.)

But I got involved with this instead. Here are some reasons why:

  • I believe public transit is essential for our community to grow and prosper (as J.T. McLawhorn said at the meeting, public transit is a vital part of a community’s circulatory system, and without that, “You’re dead.”), and next year the bus system — a rather poor, lame excuse for public transportation, but it’s all we’ve got — runs out of money.
  • Every other venue for keeping it going has been thoroughly explored. And I think you will notice that those opposing this referendum don’t present a viable alternative. A community group spent vast amounts of volunteer time two years ago studying all of Richland County’s transportation needs. $500,000 worth of studies were done. This was the only viable way to do it, given the straitjacket that the Legislature puts communities in when it comes to taxing and spending. Ask Columbia College President Caroline Whitson, who chaired that effort: This is the way to do it. The unpopular temporary wheel tax that’s keeping it going now is not a workable permanent solution.
  • That revenue would also pay for a number of other needed improvements to transportation infrastructure — bike and hiking trails, and road improvements — that were identified through that same wide-ranging community conversation two years back. This answers those who say “I don’t ride the bus” (as if taxes were a user fee, but let’s not go down that philosophical rathole right now). This plan has something for everyone in the county. And it’s not a wish list; there is considerable community support behind each of these projects.
  • Funding from other sources for the road projects is not any more forthcoming — from state or federal sources, or anywhere else — than is funding for the bus system. This is truly a case in which a community has come together to determine it’s needs, and identified a sensible way to pay for it without asking for a handout — a handout that, as I say, isn’t coming. This is something Richland County needs to do for itself, and this is the best way available to do it.
  • It’s a fair way to pay for this. Some may protest that I don’t live in the county, so who am I to speak out? My answer to that is that THIS is the way to get people like me — who spend almost all our waking hours in Richland County, and benefit from its roads and other services — to pay our share. I’m more than willing to do it. Richland County residents who pay property taxes should be twice as willing, even eager.
  • Like many of you, I’m concerned about putting too much stress on the sales tax. Nikki Haley and the other lawmakers who wrongheadedly supported Act 388, and adamantly refuse to repeal it, badly distorted our already fouled-up tax system. They eliminated school operations taxes on owner-occupied homes by raising the sales tax by a penny. They did this on top of the fact that they had forced local communities to turn to a local option sales tax by proscribing or restricting other revenue sources. Because of all that, this is the only option local communities have for such needs as this. And of course, it also has the virtue I mentioned above. A magnet county like Richland, drawing people from all over central South Carolina, should rely more on a sales tax than other counties.
  • This method has been used with great success in other communities across the state — Charleston, Florence and York counties have benefited greatly. For a lot of the business leaders who are lining up behind this, watching those communities improve their infrastructure and get a leg up in economic development while we continue to fall behind is a huge motivation factor in supporting this.

There are other reasons that aren’t coming to me at the moment as I type this, which I will no doubt write about in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you might want to peruse this summary of the proposal.

The folks who turned out for the kickoff Thursday were a pretty good group. As I stood in the crowd listening to the speakers, I could see from where I was standing: Ted Speth (the first speaker), Steve Benjamin, Joel & Kit Smith, Barbara Rackes, Samuel Tenenbaum, Rick Silver, Emily Brady, Col. Angelo Perri, Cathy Novinger, Bernice Scott, Jennifer Harding, Chuck Beamon, J.T. McLawhorn, Candy Waites, Paul Livingston, Greg Pearce, Lee Bussell, Sonny White and Mac Bennett.

Here’s a longer list of folks who pledged ahead of the kickoff to support the campaign. But I know it’s not complete, because my name isn’t on it.

More about this as we go along. This campaign has just begun.

28 thoughts on “I get off the sidelines, and take a stand: Pass the penny sales tax for transportation

  1. Doug Ross

    I always find it interesting that the magic number for increasing the sales tax seems to be “a penny”. Somehow that penny is just what the government needs to do exactly what they want to do. Calling it “just a penny” is a word game to try and make it sound like it’s no big deal. Instead, the tax should be presented as “a 11% increase in the sales tax to raise $X million dollars per year”. That’s what it really is.

    Naturally, I am against this tax. It comes at the wrong time and is being used to fund a bus system that noone seems to be able to justify on its own. The reason the bus system isn’t viable is because there aren’t enough riders. Let’s not use the “if we build it, they will ride” philosophy. There is no good reason for the majority of taxpayers in Richland County to subsidize the bus riders in Columbia. There aren’t enough jobs downtown to justify it.

    As for the roads, this bill should be presented as “hey, we screwed up by allowing growth to exceed the capacity of the roads despite repeated warnings… now you can pay for the mess we created.” The road issues could have been prevented. Unfortunately, the local government loved those multi-thousand home developments that caused the roads to be choked. You know all those homes pay taxes. Maybe an intelligent, fiscally conservative council would have allocated funds for roads when the developments were built. But, no, they just said “Yippee! More money in the pot to spend on other stuff.”

    When you have the power to tax, it gives you the ability to cover up a lot of sins of greed and poor planning.

    And one last personal note – as a taxpayer, I’m supposed to be confident that a county that has taken more than two months to fill a pothole at the entrance to our development will be able to effectively build roads? Try dealing with THAT government branch sometime. It makes the DMV look positively stellar.

    Vote “NO” on a 11% tax increase.

  2. Doug Ross

    And to follow on – if you want to fix specific roads, it should be done with bonds, not taxes. Bonds are temporary and specific. Taxes are forever.

    But then you couldn’t use bonds to prop up an unjustifiable bus system.

  3. Karen McLeod

    I’m willing to pay that extra penny, but I could wish that we’d use a less regressive form of taxation.

  4. Ralph Hightower

    I think that the creation of sidewalks, the paving of dirt roads in Richland County should be paid for by the residents of Richland County by property taxes.

    I agree that public transportation is needed for the Midlands. Lexington County dropped the ball to continue funding of the CMRTA bus service; CMRTA buses stop at Lexington Medical Center.

    But taxing anyone that buys a meal, or other items in Columbia, or Richland County is wrong to fund the creation of sidewalks or paving of dirt roads.

    We have done a shift in our buying habits with the property tax reform. We now do our shopping primarily in our county. Why should we pay sales taxes to another county?

    Columbia is the center of the Midlands. Columbia and Richland should drop their sales tax on meals!

    Columbia, Richland, and Lexington should fund the bus system. Sidewalks, bike lanes, and paving of dirt roads belong to the counties are the responsibility of the residents.

  5. Mark Stewart

    Sometimes people just need to decide that some functions of government are essential if a region desires to continue to grow and thrive. One of those functions is a public transit system. Yes, Columbia’s is an anachronistic throw-back. But the real problem is two-fold: (i) public transit has been consumed with finding a stable source of funds to the detriment of incremental improvement and expansion, and (ii) everyone seems to see this issue in NIMBY terms – that is, I don’t ride so why should I pay?

    The problem is that not only has time passed by, but the opportunity to methodically build something of wider civic value has been missed. Mass Transit – a regional bus system, yes, but even more the vision and collaboration to seek to achieve a multi-modal, interconnected system in incremental steps should be the goal.

    I would much prefer to see a multi-county property tax funded mass transit system than one funded with just a Richland County sales tax (and also one that would be paid for by all property classifications). For those who say that that’s a burden, I would ask why one lives in a major metropolitan area? We cannot expect to simply receive benefits without making investments in our civic infrastructure.

    I would go further and say the most important thing for the citizens of Richland/Lexington Counties to seize upon is the internalization of a shared vision to become the true capitol city region of the state. Charleston and Greenville are ahead economically at present; but Columbia is best positioned to grow into the leading MSA in the state. Neither one of the other regions is likely to be able to grow into the dominant metropolitan market the way that the Midlands can. If that is the articulated long term goal for our Midlands region, a lot of the other issues confronting the area will fall into place. If this does not happen, both the Upstate and the Midlands are likely to simply become relatively impoverished outliers to the Charlotte Metro area over the coming decades.

    That may seem far removed from funding a public bus system today for many, but it’s really not. Cities invest in public transit and do not view the funds as a wasted subsidy even when the benefits may only appear indirect at best.

  6. bud

    Issues Brad didn’t raise.

    1. Columbia residents already pay more for restaruant meals than other folks. That provides an incentive to head across the river to buy meals. This would only exacerbate that problem.

    2. An increase in taxes is really awful while we’re fighting to recover from a recession.

    3. Remember the trolleys? Nobody rode those things. Why? Nobody knew where or when they would run. I suspect buses would have the same problem. I suggest we bring back the trolleys in some very simplified form and let them run for a while with funding from the hospitality tax. But make sure they are both cheap with easy routes and plentiful run.

    4. Not sure the whole “growth” thing is a positive. Do we really want Columbia any bigger?

    5. Brad suggests there is no other funding option. So if money is so tight why are we spending money to refurbish the Township Auditorium to make it look EXACTLY like it did before restructuring? And please DO NOT say the hospitality tax can only be used for crap like that.

  7. bud

    I’m old enough to remember a 3% sales tax. What would this make it, 10% for a restaraunt meal in Columbia? That is simply outrageous.

  8. Phillip

    Good for you, Brad. I was wondering when I would be hearing more about the campaign from the “pro” side of this debate—it’s so critical to the well-being of our city, in so many ways: economic (especially from the standpoint of the working poor), environmentally and in terms of city planning and the overall livability of our city. Doug asks why we need this tax with a low ridership level—I don’t know all the numbers and would like to see what this tax projects in terms of improvement and actual expansion of service, but I can say that I rode the buses for awhile here but the schedules are so sparse and inconvenient that it was a real disincentive to stick with it. If the system were better I’m sure many more would ride. Many people are in a position where better public transportation is essential for them to be able to pursue and keep work more reliably. Reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s wonderful book “Nickel and Dimed,” one of the most striking themes that recurs throughout the book is how our culture of sprawl linked to the lack of adequate public transportation can often spell doom to the working poor who are trying to hang onto work, trying to avoid homelessness (and the concomitant costs to our society), never mind dreaming about climbing into the middle class.

    Even for those of us in better economic conditions, the options afforded by a public transport system worthy of a city our size can contribute so much to the quality of life here, the reduction of auto emissions, the lessening of traffic in the city, and so on. Prior to Columbia, I lived in Ann Arbor for several years (which is a similar-sized city) and I can tell you that it can be done, and having a good bus system can make a huge difference in livability for everybody, especially those who really can use it the most. This is so worth it.

  9. Doug Ross


    The dream of creating a mini-New York City in downtown Columbia is just that – a dream. That bus has already left the station. The sprawl can’t be reversed now. This is the Columbia the local government wanted and got, thanks to the visions of all those Summit, Harbison, Wildewood, Woodcreek, Clemson Road, etc. developments that were encouraged during the 90’s and early 2000’s.

    Somehow we’re supposed to believe that this one penny tax is going to turn Columbia into a thriving metropolitan area. AIN’T GONNA HAPPEN.

    The simple question to answer on the bus situation is: WHO IS GOING TO RIDE THE BUS?

    What we need downtown is more parking and cheaper parking – especially in the Five Points area.

    Tax me once, shame on you. Tax me twice, shame on me.

  10. Doug Ross

    How many of the public supporters of the tax ride the bus at least once a week? How many will commit to riding the bus every week if the tax is passed.

    Hey, where’d everybody go????

  11. Kathryn Fenner

    “Effective” public transportation is one of those “good things” that the urban planners who actually study this sort of thing recommend again and again. Sidewalks in *walkable* areas also add to the transit mix, as does safe bike lanes.

    Paving dirt roads, however, is troublesome. I don’t know how the roads that are now paved got paved–how were they funded? I wonder if the incremental value increase to property located on a now-paved road would offset in any appreciable way that cost of paving the roads, or whether we should not encourage settlement on such roads–there seems to be plenty of livable land along currently paved roads. I do have skepticism on the paving matters since Bernice Scott pulled a fast one a few years abck.

  12. Phillip

    @Doug: it’s a straw man argument to say that’s either we’re stuck with what we have or that we’re trying to turn Cola into NYC. My example of “A2” is closer to what I’ve seen…granted, not quite the sprawl of Columbia, but not that far behind, and like us, a “twin cities” scenario to boot with Ypsilanti. It’s a good system and works well.

    The fact that sprawl already exists doesn’t mean that we can’t improve on what we have and integrate the outer ring with the inner city, plus make the downtown more and more viable, for business and residence. I grew up in Charlotte and few places have sprawled more than that with a correspondingly dead-dead-dead downtown for most of my childhood and teen years, but some foresight and good planning (granted, mixed in with some misjudgments) have certainly transformed the inner part of that city into a place where people live as well as work. Sure the sprawl is still there, nobody claimed that one was a surefire cure for another, it’s not an either/or.

  13. Mark Stewart


    Why does Five Points (or the Vista) need more – or cheaper parking? Columbia is drowning in parking spaces – what it needs is economic and cultural activity.

    Nobody expects Columbia to become NYC; but is the example set by other under a million population cities such an impossible dream for our region? There are some good examples across the country to learn from.

  14. Karen McLeod

    The reason so few ride the public transit is because we have such a sorry system. One has to wait forever on a bus. Usually the bus stop isn’t convienient. The connections are poor. No one who can help it is going to walk a half a mile in August heat to wait 30-45 min for a bus that will take them somewhere where they can get another bus (maybe after another walk, certainly after another wait) that gets them within a half mile or so of where they want to go. Did I mention that the trip will usually take about 2 hours each way? We desperately need a GOOD transit system.

  15. bud

    Bike lanes are a terrible idea. Cyclists will not use them because trash tends to collect there. Simply make the right-hand travel lane 2 feet wider and forego the line markings that delineate a bike lane.

    Doug is correct on this one. We simply just cannot continue to add on to the sales tax. No one will ever want to visit Columbia if we keep this up.

    Who is actually going to ride the bus? Why not try a pilot project with the trolleys or buses if you prefer and see if folks would actually be willing to ride. But please don’t make it complicated or expensive. New Orleans has a very simple system that is used. Just have a few loops at first then expand on it. And make sure everyone knows how to use it. Market this as a tourist incentive then it will qualify for hospitality money. Creative BS can go a long way in making a proposal look like it is in line with the intent of a particular funding source. Heck, we obtained grants for the downtown street-scaping which is a complete waste of money, why not buses?

    At the end of the we really should recognize Columbia for what it is, a sleepy backwater. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Has anyone been to Atlanta lately? Is that what folks want? Most abominable place in the world, much worse than NYC.

  16. Doug Ross

    Let’s not get ahead of ourselves on this tax. It’s not going to pay for some magic monorail system that transports tens of thousands of white collar workers into downtown Columbia. It’s going to support a bus system that nobody thinks is worthwhile.

    The part everyone misses when comparing Columbia to other metro areas is that there aren’t the same jobs downtown. Not even close. How about getting USC to commit to using the bus system (and paying to use it)? How about the people who work in the State House area?

    No jobs = no need for bus service.

  17. scout

    Oh good grief, people, why is everyone so negative? If the bus system was decent and reliable, I would use it. Bud and Doug, you can’t gauge who would use a good reliable system by how many people use the current system, which is not good and reliable. I know that has been said before in this conversation, but it doesn’t seem to be taking, so maybe the third time will be the charm.

  18. Doug Ross


    Will different people be implementing the new bus system?

    Will different people be involved in fixing the road issues from the ones who allowed them to get clogged in the first place?

    Is there one person who will take responsibility for implementing the proposed system and put his job on the line?

  19. bud

    Scout, go back and read what I said. I think it would be a great idea to fund a pilot project using the old trolleys or perhaps regular buses to run on a few high profile loops. One loop would run from Harden street in front of Yesterdays south turning west onto Blossom then eventually north on Lincoln Street finally turning east onto Gervais and back to Yesterdays. Stops would be clearly marked and the fare would be nominal say 50 cents or so. Trolleys/buses would run on this route every 10-15 minutes between 6am and midnight weekdays then until 2am on weekends. This would be funded with hospitality money rationalized as a tourist draw.

    If riders don’t use that route in any significant numbers then all hope is essentially lost.

  20. Kathryn Fenner

    There was talk about a “bus riders strike” the last time this came up–so we could see just how many poor souls rely on our pitiful system to get to work–the hospitals were particularly alarmed at the prospect.

    I would mos def ride a decent system– I have done so in four other cities I lived in–including two which are far smaller than Columbia.

  21. Kathryn Fenner

    @bud– I think they did something like that-$1 fare from Main St to the Vista–would have worked great for lunch crowds–I think there was a little success…

    There’s little Ho Tax $ unaccounted for, but perhaps the Vista Guild, the Five Points Association and the Downtown District could work summat out.

  22. Doug Ross


    “there’s little Ho Tax $ unaccounted for”

    Midget prostitutes in our fair city? and being taxed?

  23. Kathryn Fenner

    Well, Doug, you gots your Ho Tax and your A Tax. Sounds like Sin City to me.

    Mardi Gras in Five Points every weekend!

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