County finds more uses for RIDE II money, this time it’s Interstate 73

The Sun News file photo

Excess tax dollars collected from RIDE II is the fund that keeps on giving for county councilmen, who are now eyeing Interstate 73 as a beneficiary of the $36 million in leftover road-building money.

The council is tweaking the 2018 fiscal year budget to include language allowing the maneuver by a simple majority vote to pass a future resolution, rather than the two-thirds needed to pass an ordinance.

The measure allows the county to use the RIDE II money as well as funding from the recently extended RIDE I tax to fund road project mitigation costs, including those expected to arise from construction of the interstate to satisfy concerns by environmentalists.

“The council could aspire to purchase mitigation for that project or other projects,” Barry Spivey, director of the county finance department told the council this week.

State transportation officials have proposed purchasing 6,000 acres on Gunter’s Island east of the Little Pee Dee River to offset expected environmental degradation from the construction of Interstate 73.

That proposal is under review by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Local elected officials have pushed for years for the interstate expansion directly to Myrtle Beach to increase tourism visits and alleviate heavy traffic congestion along U.S. 501.

The action to circumvent the tax funds comes as the county council and South Carolina’s congressional delegation in Washington are preparing to push for federal road dollars from the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump pledged to make infrastructure funding a priority of his administration, and elected officials aren’t wasting any time to make sure interstate money is in place locally should federal matching dollars become available.

During a visit to the Grand Strand last month, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said he and U.S. Rep. Tom Rice plan to ask for a $1 billion infrastructure package for the state that would include interstate funding.

The county council followed that lead by recently extending the RIDE I hospitality tax of 1.5 percent beyond its deadline, to continue taxing food, drinks, accommodations and admission fees to raise additional funds that could be used to build the interstate.

RIDE I began two decades ago and raised more than a billion dollars to build nearly two dozen road projects, a debt expected to be paid off by the taxes in 2019. It was not passed through a voter referendum.

RIDE II was put to the voters and passed. It collected a one percent tax from retail, hotel and food purchases from 2007 through 2014, and raised $463 million to build numerous road projects.

The council has also used leftover funds from RIDE II to purchase a new emergency responder radio system for the county at a cost of $16 million.

Additionally, the county is now borrowing from that fund to jumpstart road construction for RIDE III.

The final vote for the county council to approve the 2018 budget that contains the language to extend spending to Interstate 73 is set for June 6.

Audrey Hudson: 843-444-1765, @AudreyHudson