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Why not Pennies for potholes?

Potholes and pock-marked roads are growing problems in York County that need to be fixed, state and local leaders agree.

But with dollars scarce, how and when to fix the problem is up for debate.

Some county residents wanted to spend money from next week's Pennies for Progress referendum on road maintenance. But the state law authorizing both the referendum and the 1-cent Pennies' sales tax doesn't allow the revenue to be used for general maintenance projects.

Business leaders and government officials have widely endorsed extending the Pennies program, the only significant source of dollars for road improvements since voters first approved it in 1997. So far, nearly two dozen road improvement projects have been completed under the program. They include major road widenings - such as S.C. 901 between I-77 and S.C. 72 - to intersection improvements.

If approved by voters, the 2011 Pennies program will pay for 12 major highway projects, 39 gravel road paving projects, and 11 intersection and pedestrian safety projects.

Roadway maintenance remains a major concern, along with congestion and safety issues, said Phil Leazer, who manages York County's Pennies program.

Many state and local leaders acknowledge the importance of repairing pothole-ridden roads in York County. Where they differ is how to address it.

One option might be another kind of sales tax that allows for more flexibility in how tax dollars may be used.

Another option is raising the state gas tax, though finding the political will in Columbia to do so may be difficult, some say.

Another answer may lie in encouraging legislators to add maintenance as an acceptable use of sales tax revenue in the law that authorized the Pennies program.

Although counties have the option to build buildings, address water and sewer needs, and even renourish beaches with local sales tax revenue, York County has focused its Pennies program on addressing safety and congestion issues along highly traveled corridors.

State banks on Pennies

That's where the money is needed, state transportation officials agree, adding that they can't imagine what York County's roadways would be like without Pennies for Progress.

As the second fastest-growing county in the state, York's roadways are carrying more traffic and wearing out more quickly, amplifying the need for more road dollars now, said Sarah Nuckles, who represents the 5th Congressional district on the state Department of Transportation.

Making matters worse, South Carolina operates the nation's fourth largest state-maintained roads system on the fourth lowest gas tax. The gas tax is basically the only source of state road improvement or maintenance funding.

Each year, the state allocates to York County about $4.5 million of state and federal dollars for state and federal road projects.

The state is responsible for maintaining more than 1,330 miles of roadway in York County. Of those, almost 70 percent - or 940 miles - need repairs costing about $280 million, said John McCarter, a district engineering administrator for the state Department of Transportation.

That estimate only includes laying asphalt - it doesn't include mowing grass, putting up signs, or maintaining the edge of the road.

"We're on the downhill slide," McCarter said. "We're not going to catch up. It just gets worse and worse each year."

Because Pennies has paid for new projects, the program has significantly diminished the burden placed on the state to maintain roads in York County, state transportation officials and local leaders say.

Road worries

Despite widespread public support for Pennies, road problems have tainted some residents' views of the program.

Last year, a group of Rock Hill neighbors complained that the roads in their neighborhoods had for decades been prone to flooding and drainage problems. They wanted some of the Pennies money to fix the problems. They were told by Pennies officials the work fell outside the scope of the program.

Donald Smith, a nother Rock Hill resident, has lived off of Eastview Road since he and his wife moved from Maryland five years ago.

"I never saw a road like this up in Maryland. They keep filling them up, filling them up," he said, referring to potholes along the side of Eastview.

Donald said he won't support Pennies because it doesn't include his road.

"You gotta go down the yellow line and that's dangerous," he said. "You shouldn't have to do that."

State transportation officials understand the frustration residents feel, Nuckles said.

For travelers along Eastview Road, the state has some good news, she said. If all goes according to plan, the state Department of Transportation will resurface Eastview Road from S.C. 5 to McConnells Highway next year, Nuckles said.

Pennies has made that project easier by improving the intersections where Eastview connects with S.C. 5 and McConnells Highway, she said.

Pennies has tackled major road improvement projects, widening them and resurfacing them at the same time, allowing the DOT to address other projects, such as resurfacing roads, according to Nuckles and Leazer.

New revenue for roads

The state needs to find a dedicated source of revenue for meeting growth and maintenance needs, Nuckles said.

Former York County Council Chairman Buddy Motz said in his 12 years on the council, he and other county leaders asked the state legislature to do exactly that.

"We had written several letters to them encouraging them to increase the gas tax," he said Friday.

S.C. Sen. Wes Hayes of Rock Hill acknowledged that while the gasoline tax is holding steady, "it doesn't keep up with the rising cost of maintenance," he said.

Hayes agreed that raising the gas tax "could be an answer" to finding revenue for roads, "but I'm not necessarily going to suggest that."

Convincing the legislature to pass - and Gov Nikki Haley to sign - any tax increase would be "extremely difficult," Hayes said.

Instead, the legislature could look to ways to modify the law dictating how counties form their sales tax programs, he said.

The Pennies referendum ballot must list the program's focus and the specific projects, which prevents the county from filling potholes and fulfilling other basic maintenance needs.

That approach has protected taxpayers, Leazer argued, by forcing the county to specify how money would be spent.

It's been a good approach, considering the concerns the public has had about Pennies management, he said.

One option might be changing the law to allow York County to set aside tax revenues specifically for road maintenance.

Another option might be switching to a sales tax that allows for more spending flexibility. The state gives counties a few options for creating a local sales tax. One option allows voters to approve a sales tax that pays for a specific list of projects, which York County has. The sales tax ends after a certain amount of money is raised.

Another option allows for a 25-year sales tax to pay for transportation needs. That option provides more spending flexibility.

It's doubtful whether York County residents would commit themselves to such a tax, especially with Pennies on the table, some county leaders said.

Residents in other parts of the state have the same problems.

In Charleston County voters approved sales tax where half of every sales tax penny goes toward two programs. The county will collect up to $1.3 billion over 25 years.

Like Pennies, Charleston County's tax program has 13 major road improvement projects voters approved in 2004. They range from a few million to more than $80 million, said Jim Armstrong, director of transportation development for Charleston County.

Unlike York, Charleston also has an "allocations program" through which $10.5 million each year goes to resurfacing, gravel road paving, intersection and pedestrian improvements.

The county uses databases and input from the DOT, school districts, municipalities, and public agencies to determine where to spend that money. Last year's requests totaled $75 million, Armstrong said.

The option gives them more flexibility, he said. If they want to fill a pothole using the sales tax revenue, they can, though the county also has a pothole program.

"Our roads would be in horrible shape if we didn't have this going on every year."