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DOT Commissioners Push for More Funds for S.C. Roads

A tax increase of any kind is tough to get support for in Republican-dominated South Carolina.

Mon February 02, 2015 - Southeast Edition
Jeffrey Collins - ASSOCIATED PRESS



COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The Legislature’s session just started and already business and transportation leaders are making a hard push to get more money into South Carolina roads.

A group called The Road Information Program held news conferences Jan. 15 in several South Carolina cities to release a report that said the average driver in South Carolina pays at least $1,150 extra a year because of extra maintenance, fuel used and the cost of fatal crashes caused by bad roads.

At the news conference in Columbia were four of the state seven Department of Transportation commissioners, who say the state must raise the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax, unchanged for almost 30 years.

“You absolutely cannot maintain the state system with the money we have,’’ Commissioner John Hardee said.

But a tax increase of any kind is tough to get support for in Republican-dominated South Carolina. Newly-elected commission Chairman Jim Rozier said lawmakers must be willing to break their pledges to reject any tax increase made when the state’s roads weren’t crumbling. The report released Jan. 15 said 46 percent of major South Carolina roads were in poor condition last year, compared to 32 percent in poor condition six years earlier.

“You sign something that ties your hands tomorrow, that’s kind of foolish,’’ Rozier said.

SCDOT issued a statement describing a funding solution of the state’s roads as “a complicated issue.’’

“SCDOT has thoroughly researched and outlined the needs of the system. This effort has been aimed at positioning the state to have its infrastructure in a good state of repair by the year 2040,’’ the statement said. “The issue continues to generate healthy discussion from all across South Carolina.’’

Organizers of the news conference promise a lot more push for roads on social media and through other outlets as the five-month legislative session continues.

As lawmakers returned to Columbia, the debate on how much money the state needs shifted. The Department of Transportation released a report last year saying it needed an extra $1.5 billion a year to get all state roads to good condition by 2040.

Now a much lower number — $400 million a year — is getting more attention. That is how much DOT Director Janet Oakley said her agency needs to keep roads as they are and assure the system doesn’t get worse.

“If we were just going to arrest the further decay, that’s what it would take,’’ she said at the annual meeting of the South Carolina Business & Industry Political Education Committee. “We’d still have 30 percent of our interstates congested. We’d still have 20 percent substandard bridges. We’d still have only 29 percent of our people driving on good roads. But that’s what it would take.’’

Oakley, who took over at DOT last year, also answered criticism of asking for an additional $1.5 billion. New House Speaker Jay Lucas has said a plan to fix roads might be delayed this year if he doesn’t get better answers and more concrete figures from the agency.

“That is an estimate, and it’s looking out 29 years,’’ Oakley said of the $1.5 billion figure. “Is it accurate to the penny? It is an estimate. What I can promise you is we will do a better job in communicating the information that we have to help inform the debate.’’

Rep. Gary Simrill has led a House committee looking for a comprehensive solution to paying for roads. One idea being strongly considered would be revamp the DOT and reduce the state’s 16.75-cent a gallon gas tax, charge sales tax for gasoline, and increase the sales tax statewide by one penny on the dollar if voters approve in 2016. The Rock Hill Republican estimates that would raise close to that $400 million figure.

But no plan has emerged in the Senate. And anything lawmakers approve, likely must also be OK with Gov. Nikki Haley, because there won’t be enough support to override her veto. She will release her own road funding plan in the next few weeks, but has said before that she cannot support simply raising the gas tax.