We sympathize with Lexington Town Council members, who have faced criticism for taking steps to resolve what should be a state problem.
Faced with growing traffic congestion throughout the town, council members have given preliminary approval to adding a 2 percent tax on restaurant meals, take-out food and some snacks to fix three of the town’s most clogged up areas.
The tax is expected to initially raise about $2 million a year. On Monday, town leaders agreed to limit the tax to eight years, which should be enough time to meet the three projects’ $13.6-million total cost.
▪ Adding a traffic circle on Corley Mill Road and a side road near U.S. 378 and I-20Money raised by the tax would pay for:
▪ Installing a traffic circle at S.C. 6 and U.S. 378, with new routes into Lexington Middle School
▪ Converting parts of S.C. 6 and Church Street into one-way roads
Traffic congestion has been a problem for years in the rapidly growing town, where the population increased 11.2 percent between 2010 and July 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Adding to the problem is that several of the town’s roads are commuter thoroughfares for residents from other parts of Lexington County and the Midlands, according to town leaders.
Traffic is frequently bumper-to-bumper in the three targeted areas. Traffic is especially frustrating during the school year at Corley Mill Road, where River Bluff High School opened two years ago, and near Lexington Middle School.
Lexington residents and their town leaders understandably want relief. But waiting on state government to help has been futile. So this summer, town council members stepped forward with a plan to create a hospitality tax to pay for improvements.
State law allows local governments to add a hospitality tax on prepared foods, but the revenue must pay for tourism-related projects. Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall told The State’s Tim Flach that the projects are related to tourism because each will improve access to Lake Murray, the Lexington County Museum, a downtown walking path and an amphitheater planned for downtown.
Whether the road projects would assist tourism is debatable. But even if they would, it’s silly to tax food to improve roads. The best way to pay for building new roads or fixing old ones is a tax on gas and other motor fuels. It’s a user tax, requiring those who use roads to pay for them.
South Carolina has the nation’s third-lowest gas tax at 16.75 cents per gallon. Not surprisingly, the state also has major road problems. The state Department of Transportation said an additional $1.5 billion is needed annually during the next 25 years to bring all state-maintained roadways up to good condition.
Before this year’s legislative session, state leaders said improving roads was one of their top priorities. Because our Legislature controls the gas tax — and because it gives local governments such limited options for generating revenue — it falls on state government to fix the roads.
The state House passed a sensible plan to address the state’s road needs. While not perfect, the plan called for increasing the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon and raising the sales tax cap on new vehicles to $500 from $300.
The plan also called for reducing the income tax by a tenth what it raised in new taxes, which seemed to be a necessary evil to secure the votes needed.
That’s clearly not enough. The issue will be at the top of the Senate calendar when the General Assembly returns in January. We hope senators act quickly to approve a plan that is acceptable to the House, and that South Carolina can take meaningful steps toward solving a major public concern.Bickering stalled any action on roads in the Senate, which meant lawmakers failed to act on yet another of their top priorities. Legislators did offer some relief by allocating $216 million in surplus revenue to counties to pay for roads. Lexington County received about $8.5 million.
Lexington Town Council and other local governments shouldn’t have to find creative ways to do someone else’s job.