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Pennies road program needs York County help

York County's one-cent sales tax program needs county cash to finish one stalled road construction project and jumpstart new ones.

With final approval from the York County Council expected next month, the Pennies for Progress program will receive $3 million from the county's $43 million reserves fund to complete the Albright Road widening to five lanes from Black Street to Heckle Boulevard- the only 1997 Pennies project not yet under way.

The county will use the $3 million as a match to receive nearly $6 million in federal and state grants available for the project, said Phil Leazer, Pennies project manager.

The deadline for using or losing the grants is approaching, he said, so the county needs to act.

"Once we get this, we're basically done" with the '97 projects, Leazer said. "We're $3 million away from having that as a reality."

Voters first approved Pennies for Progress in 1997. They extended the program in 2003 and then again in August. For 14 years, Pennies has been the county's only significant source of road construction funds.

So far, Pennies has paid to resurface and widen more than 40 miles of roads, improve dozens of intersections, pave more than 64 miles of gravel roads, and repair 12 bridges. Another 50 miles of highway widening and resurfacing projects are either in construction or in planning.

The program has had its snags in management, construction delays and cost overruns, especially early on.

The bypass along S.C. 5 in York is another 1997 project not yet complete, but construction is under way.

Cost estimates for the 1997 program missed the mark by more than $100 million, and the county has sought the remainder from alternative sources, including grants.

In 2008 the county applied $16.5 million in bonds toward completion of the 1997 projects, County Manager Jim Baker said. To his knowledge, that's the only other time taxpayer money not generated through the sales-tax program has gone to pay for Pennies projects.

Leazer said county staff have worked hard to find grant money to make up the rest.

"We've nickeled and dimed trying to get federal earmarks, highway safety grants," and other forms of support, he said.

A pending federal grant, if it comes through, will allow Pennies to reimburse the county $837,000.

A faster start

County officials want to jumpstart the 2011 Pennies projects, which voters approved in August, by borrowing $8 million from the general fund reserves.

The sales tax will raise about $161 million to pay for 12 major highway widening projects, 39 gravel road paving projects, and 11 intersection projects aimed at improving vehicle and pedestrian safety, approved in August.

The loan from the county is needed because the sales tax revenue won't be available until later next year. The money would be paid back at no interest from the revenue the sales tax generates.

As construction delays and unanticipated costs have been problems in the past, they say the advanced cash will help them move forward with the design and buying of right-of-way for upcoming projects.

It will also allow the county to take advantage of lower costs and create much needed construction jobs locally, Baker said.