DOT Approves Request to Redirect $21.5M to Four Roads

Some state Republicans, including the GOP chairman, criticize the new designation as an example of politics coming before actual highway needs.

📅   Mon August 29, 2016 - Southeast Edition #18


Clyburn championed earmarks when they were common practice in Congress.
Clyburn championed earmarks when they were common practice in Congress.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) State Department of Transportation commissioners on Aug. 18 approved U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn's request to reallocate $21.5 million of unused federal money to four road projects in his district.

Clyburn said the roads in Sumter, Orangeburg and Columbia follow federal requirements of being within 50 mi. of the original four projects he directed money toward more than a decade ago. The veteran Democratic congressman secured the budget earmarks before Republicans took over the House and banned the practice in 2011.

The $21.5 million is left over from three completed projects — including the pedestrian walkway over S.C. 277 named for Clyburn — and a fourth that never received the necessary environmental approvals, according to the DOT.

Some state Republicans, including the GOP chairman, criticize the new designation as an example of politics coming before actual highway needs.

But DOT Chairman Mike Wooten argued Clyburn won the money, not the DOT, reports The Post and Courier of Charleston.

“I would love to take every penny and apply it to the highest priorities, but philosophically we didn't lobby for that money,' he said.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said that reasoning's faulty. It ignores Congress' determination that state needs should take precedence over the original purpose of unused earmarks, said the state Senate's chief opponent of raising gas taxes to pay for road repairs.

He contends the money would be best spent fixing potholes on Interstate 95, which also fits the 50-mi. radius requirement.

But Clyburn said he requested what local officials wanted, and the projects will benefit communities that have suffered decades of neglect. They won't require any state money, he said, since the communities have pledged to pay the 20 percent match.

They include $11.5 million for a Main Street revitalization project in Sumter, $7 million for two projects in Orangeburg County and $3 million the University of South Carolina requested for a street bordering the campus.

Clyburn championed earmarks when they were common practice in Congress.

Nearly 90 percent of the leftover money had been designated to a road linking the tiny hamlets of Lone Star and Rimini.

While Clyburn fought for the project for years as a way to bring development to a depressed rural area, critics called it a “bridge to nowhere.' Environmentalists sued both state and federal agencies, saying a 3-mi. bridge over the north end of Lake Marion would unnecessarily destroy wetlands and disturb wildlife habitats.

The 9-mi. road-and-bridge project, estimated at $150 million in 2006, was never built.

Debate over how to fix South Carolina's crumbling roads will resume in the Legislature next year.

The DOT has said it needs $1.5 billion annually over several decades to bring the nation's fourth-largest state highway system to good condition.

Legislators call the road-funding law it passed in June a start. It allows for more than $4 billion in spending over the next 10 to 13 years, mostly by borrowing and redirecting money.