What to know about Lexington County’s proposed penny road tax before November vote

Tracy Glantz/tglantz@thestate.com

Lexington County drivers could soon have smoother, wider roads — if they’re willing to pay for it.

Voters in the fast-growing county home to Columbia suburbs and Lake Murray will decide Nov. 8 whether to impose a new 1-percent sales tax to fund a long list of road improvement projects.

Here are five things to know about the referendum.

1) What’s the biggest project on the list?

The single most expensive project would widen Longs Pond Road, which will grow from two lanes to five lanes between Muddy Springs Road and Old Cherokee Road. The six mile improvement west of the town of Lexington will intersect with U.S. 378 and Augusta Highway and cross over Interstate 20 in one of the fastest growing and developing parts of the county. The project — which will cover repaving, resurfacing, drainage and other improvements — will cost $64 million.

Other big projects include a bypass on Corley Mill Road — including the installation of a roundabout and realignment of Davega Drive, Royal Oaks Lane and Riverchase Way along Interstate 20 ($28 million) — and the Gibson Road Parkway, a two-lane divided bypass between Lexington’s West Main Street and South Lake Drive that will include three traffic circles ($25 million). All are meant to alleviate traffic concerns in the one of the fastest growing counties in the state.

2) How much will it cost?

The referendum will mandate at least $536 million be spent on improving roadways around Lexington County — but that’s only the minimum amount. If the sales tax raises more than that amount over its eight-year lifespan, the county will be able to continue down the priority list, which covers more than $639 million in estimated project costs. The remaining $103 million in projects are dirt road pavings.

How much will those numbers mean for you? While the sales tax is calculated at 1% of a purchase, it’s hard for economists to estimate how much more a consumer will spend over a year, said Danna Thomas, assistant economics professor at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business.

“What we see with the economics of sales taxes is, when there’s an increase in taxes, there’s a decrease in demand,” Thomas said. “That could mean a non-inclusive decrease in prices along with a tax increase.”

3) Is it linked to the amount of traffic?

Traffic has been a major concern for Lexington as the county’s population — of both people and cars — has exploded in recent years, leading the county to tighten its rules for new housing subdivisions last year. Traffic data from the S.C. Department of Transportation shows more than 43,000 vehicles a day pass on some stretches of road in the county.

On the busiest highway in the county, U.S. 378, the county opted not to include a general widening of the highway in the sales tax package as it would have eaten up too much of the tax receipts. But the package will still pay for intersection improvements on the highway at Hope Ferry and Henbet Road, and include signal improvements to Sunset Boulevard in West Columbia between Meeting Street and Interstate 26.

The other busiest stretch in the county, U.S. 1, will get major corridor improvements on West Main Street in Lexington between Columbia Avenue and Gibson Road, the second busiest stretch of the county with an estimated 43,500 vehicles daily. East Main Street will also see improvements, as will West Columbia’s Meeting Street between State and 9th streets.

4) Where will you see the results?

The project list is spread out across a wide area of the county, and not just the busiest roads. The county’s penny tax website breaks down the list by all nine county council districts, and includes smaller side streets and even dirt roads along with major thoroughfares.

The top-ranked projects include at least $109.6 million in countywide repaving projects. The top three repaving packages could get underway as soon as next year, a consultant told the commission tasked with putting together the list, and roads from differently ranked groups could be paved in the same area at once.

A map on the county website breaks down the hundreds of paving projects from eight different paving packages by type and location.

5) Why are these the priorities?

The full priority rankings of all 120 projects were drawn up by a citizens’ committee that included representatives of both Lexington County Council and the town of Lexington, based off of suggestions from the county council and Lexington County’s various municipalities, and ranked based on their impact and shovel-readiness.

A similar referendum failed to get enough voter support to pass the sales tax in 2014, and an effort to add another list of road projects to the ballot in 2020 was abandoned when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

County council has emphasized road improvements as the goal of the penny tax, even rejecting an earlier version of the project list because it included too many other kinds of projects. The specially-appointed committee tasked with drawing up the list then dropped $27 million worth of projects from the list, mostly infrastructure improvement initiatives proposed by the county’s municipalities.

You can read answers to other penny tax questions on Lexington County’s FAQ page.