On the Ballot

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SHORT-TERM SALES TAX INCREASE COULD HAVE LASTING IMPACT

Of all the choices Hilton Head Island and Bluffton voters face in this month’s election, deciding whether to approve a 1 percent sales tax increase may have the most impact on their quality of life over the long term.

The transportation sales tax referendum would fund a project designed to ease severe traffic congestion between the mainland and Hilton Head — but could cause uncertainty for property owners along U.S. 278 between Moss Creek Drive in Bluffton to Squire Pope Road on Hilton Head. Expanding U.S. 278 could encroach upon their land.

The referendum calls for the county’s sales tax to go from 6 percent to 7 percent for four years, or until $120 million in revenue has been collected, whichever comes first. In addition to U.S. 278, the new revenue would be used to improve U.S. 21 on Lady’s Island and to install sidewalks and pathways throughout Beaufort County.

U.S. 278 currently cannot handle the volume of traffic going to and from Hilton Head each day, said Hilton Head assistant town manager Joshua Gruber. On eight out of 10 days a month, transportation models show more traffic going on and off of the island than crossing the South Carolina-Georgia border on Interstate 95, he said.

In addition to traffic improvements, the corridor project would include the replacement of an out-of-date bridge to the island. “There are four bridges, two east and two west,” Gruber said. “The first eastbound span has reached the end of its useful life.” The other three bridges should last another 20 to 30 years, he said, but could also stand a few improvements.

There is $40 million in state funds to repair the east bridge, but that is not enough to improve traffic flow, Gruber said. The idea is to leverage the $40 million, along with $80 million from the sales tax revenue, to get the state to add a matching $120 million for a total project budget of $240 million.

“Without the local funding as a match,” Gruber said, “we won’t be able to get state funding. Without it, it would be difficult to go forward.”

If the sales tax measure fails, other options would put a larger financial burden on residents, referendum supporters said.

“For me, the defining issue is that this is the only solution in which visitors, commuters and other people, besides just homeowners and residents in Beaufort will share the cost,” said citizen activist Larry Hughes of The Citizens for Better Roads and Bridges. “This was the only one that would not put the entire burden on property taxes or millage rates.”

As to what the referendum would mean for property owners whose land lies in the path of future U.S. 278 expansion — including many native islanders — officials say they won’t know until an assessment of the project’s impact is complete.

Mayoral candidate Rochelle Williams, a native islander, opposes the tax proposal and said the county should just use the $40 million from the state to repair the bridge. Property owners are “in an uproar” because they have been affected in the past by community improvement projects, she added.

“We have been uprooted so many times,” she said.

Windmill Harbour also would be affected by the expansion. The homeowners association is encouraging the neighborhood’s residents — who often have trouble turning onto U.S. 278 because of heavy traffic — to vote for the tax increase, said association president Don Baldwin.

“Right now, it is like shooting ducks,” he said. “The number of accidents in that one-mile stretch is pretty significant.”

Also on the ballot this month is a referendum question on the Rural and Critial Lands Preservation Program, and supporters say it goes hand-in-hand with the transportation tax referendum.

Growth should always be considered with an eye on the preservation of the Lowcountry’s natural environment, said Mark Baker, owner of Hilton Head land planning firm Wood + Partners and past vice chairman of the Rural and Critical Lands board.

“The Rural and Critical Lands referendum is a great companion to the transportation initiative. I hope people will see that,” he said.