Commissioner: Transportation Budget in ’Dire Straits’

Wed May 10, 2006 - Southeast Edition
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COLUMBIA, SC (AP) State highway commissioners said some roadwork will have to wait if lawmakers don’t provide some money for the agency.

“We are in dire straits; there’s no question about that,” said Commissioner Bob Harrell Sr., chairman of the Transportation Department board’s finance and administration committee. “I don’t think I’ve seen it this bad.”

The financial crunch is a result of increases in the cost of materials used for roads, lack of growth in the agency’s primary funding source — gas taxes — and lower-than-anticipated federal highway revenues, said Mo Denny, the agency’s chief financial officer.

Some commissioners said it may be time to raise the gas tax, which has been unchanged since 1987. But that is unlikely in an election year.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell Jr., son of the highway commissioner, said he doesn’t think a gas tax would pass. He said other options for providing more money for the Transportation Department include vehicle fees or car sales taxes.

“It just plain costs more to build roads with higher petroleum prices,” the younger Harrell said. “I think it’s time for House and Senate leadership and the governor’s office to sit down with the commissioners and figure out what we need to do to solve the problem.”

But the governor’s office said it has no sympathy for the agency, which has had some questionable expenditures recently, including its purchase last year of SUVs for top executives and payments to one commissioner of $90,000 over several years to write letters on behalf of Executive Director Betty Mabry.

“This is exactly what happens when you have a state agency that is in effect, accountable to no one,” said Joel Sawyer, spokesman of the governor. “The fact that it appears that DOT has squandered boatloads of money, and the knee-jerk reaction is to give them more is baffling.”

Denny said some projects are being delayed by the money problems.

“People are going to say, ’When is that going to happen?’ That’s the question I can’t answer at this time,” Denny said.

The seven-member board, which has six members appointed by lawmakers and the chairman appointed by the governor, is responsible for overseeing a $1.2-billion budget and more than 5,000 employees. Approximately all the agency’s revenues come from the federal government and fuel taxes.

“I think the agency is in for a very tough period, cash-flow wise,” said Chairman Tee Hooper, a Greenville businessman appointed by Sanford last year. “I’m concerned that DOT overcommitted during the last several years, and it’s going to come back to be a problem the next 18 to 24 months.”

Highway Commissioner Harrell Sr. said many state roads can’t really afford more delays in repairs and a gas tax increase would be the best way to fix the problem.

“We have a group across the street that expects us to run a highway system and they expect us to run it on 1987 dollars,” he said. “It’s our job to make it known in spades that we can’t do that. The time has come when that simply has to change.”

College of Charleston law Professor John Simpkins agreed that a gas tax will be a hard sell.

“Investing in infrastructure is an easy thing to ignore because it creeps up on you and you don’t know it’s in a crisis mode sometimes until it’s too late,” Simpkins said. “Especially in the current legislative environment where they aren’t interested in any revenue-raising measures, this will be a very difficult case to make to the Legislature.”