This is in response to the column written by York Mayor Eddie Lee that appeared in The Herald on Feb. 17 in reference to "Pennies for Progress." Mr. Lee starts out the column by suggesting western York County has been "shortchanged" by the Pennies program. When the 1997 and 2003 programs are completed, there will be approximately $92 million spent in western York County. Two of the largest individual projects that were included in each of these programs are in western York County (S.C. 5 from Alexander Love to Cherokee County and the S.C. 49/97/211/Nimitz loop).
There have been many discussions about western York County being slighted by the 1997 and 2003 program. This pretty much began with the construction delay of the 1997 program's top priority project, S.C. 5 West (delays mainly caused by state Department of Transportation design concerns and county right-of-way acquisitions). This feeling of discrimination continues today with concerns over completing the last priority project on the 1997 program, the S.C. 5 Bypass.
What we have to remember is that western York County had the top and bottom priority project in 1997, just as Rock Hill and Fort Mill have in the 2003 program. Should a funding shortfall occur in this new 2003 initiative, it is Rock Hill and Fort Mill that will find themselves in the very same position as western York County does today under the 1997 program. The last five priority projects in the 2003 Pennies program are in the Rock Hill and Fort Mill areas. If construction and right-of-way costs continue to rise as they have for the last seven years, we will find ourselves looking for additional funding for these eastern York County projects tomorrow just as we are searching for additional funding for a western York County project today.
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I would also like to respond to Mr. Lee's point that the design of the bypass is not complete, and only 15 percent of the rights-of-way have been secured. Typically a roadway project design is not 100 percent complete until a majority of the rights-of-way have been acquired. For a roadway project to begin right-of-way acquisition, plans must be nearly 80 percent complete.
Mr. Lee also stated that the county's 2007 announcement that Pennies had amassed a staggering $23 million dollar shortfall should embarrass everyone associated with the program -- especially the County Council, which has a fundamental responsibility to oversee projects such as Pennies. While I took office only last year and was not associated with this project before then, any project that was conceived in 1996 (as were the 1997 Pennies roadways) and was not constructed until some 10 years later would have a substantial shortfall.
Oil prices rose
No one could have predicted the oil price increase we have seen in this country, and, since this was the very first program of its kind in the state, it was nearly impossible to develop good project estimates. At the time, there were no other projects of its kind to compare to or to use as a point of reference.
Concerning Mr. Lee's point that the red ink should have been noticed earlier, I have two things to say. First, since taking office, I have noticed that the Pennies program was not being managed cost effectively. That is why I made the motion in the Dec. 17 meeting to bring the operation in-house where it could be managed more closely and costs significantly cut. Since the motion passed unanimously, the entire County Council was united in this effort to better manage the program. I cannot comment on previous council's actions on the program's management.
Second, every dime of the Pennies money collected has been spent for the purposes it was intended and approved. How else does someone explain that $99.255 million was collected and over $200 million worth of road work will be completed as a result.
As far as Mr. Lee's point that the money has run out twice before and his suggestion that no one is paying attention, the 1997 referendum that was approved by the voters of York County listed $24.3 million for the top priority S.C. 5 project. That estimate was broken down as $17.3 million for S.C. 5 West and $10 million for S.C. 5 East (these projects were combined as the No. 1 priority). In 1999, just two years after voters approved the 1997 program, the revised estimated costs for S.C. 5 west was $23.9 million. An additional assessment of the program in 2002 shows the costs estimate had risen to $32.5 million, and in 2004, the annual assessment of the program indicated the costs of the S.C. 5 West project had risen to an unbelievable $43.4 million.
Seeing this overwhelming increase in construction and right-of-way costs, York County officials made a plea to the SCDOT for help. In 2005, a combination of state and federal assistance helped bring in an additional $30.8 million. An additional $12.1 million of York County local funds was also added to the 1997 Pennies program in an effort to help complete all of the 1997 projects. However, even with this additional funding, the program was still short almost $20 million. The State Infrastructure Bank agreed to provide York County an additional $18 million to help close the gap in the 1997 program. When you combine this supplemental funding with the $99.255 million actually collected through the Pennies program, the total available for the program was $160.155 million. Today, York County continues to look for additional funding opportunities to ensure the completion of the 1997 program.
York County has learned many lessons in the state's first-ever one-cent sales tax program. One of those lessons is looking ahead and being as frugal as possible with the tax dollars that are collected. York County continues to look for ways to save every dollar it can with the roadway projects approved by the taxpayers of York County; however, to date there have been no decisions made to scale any project back. In an effort to get every project completed in both the 1997 and 2003 programs, we will have to look at building projects that meet the needs while saving as much money as we can.
I and the rest of the members of the current County Council are committed to seeing this project through as originally set out. As I have said, there were lessons to be learned along the way but I think we are heading in the right direction again.
This weekly column features opposing views from readers. These opinions are contrary to those expressed on this page or which otherwise take issue with something that appears in The Herald. All commentaries submitted become the property of The Herald and may be republished in any format.