COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The amount of money South Carolina gets from the federal government for roads has dropped since 2008, but that is only a small part of the funding problems for a crumbling highway system.
Figures compiled by The Associated Press show the total amount of money the state has received from the Federal Highway Trust Fund dropped by nearly $43 million, or more than 6 percent, during the five-year period ending in 2013, the latest year for which numbers were available.
Lawmakers trying to figure out how to get more money toward roads said that is still a significant amount — enough to maybe add an extra lane to 15 or 20 miles of interstate or repave a lot of secondary roads.
But there were bigger problems. Road funding has never matched the state’s growth with a gas tax that remained unchanged for nearly 30 years while road construction prices have risen considerably and vehicles are burning a lot less fuel.
The management of the Department of Transportation has come under fire too for relying on political pressure instead of objective rankings to decide what gets built and repaved and what doesn’t.
South Carolina was the tenth-fastest growing state in population over the past decade, and road spending went up 28 percent in that time. But 32 other states increased road funding at higher rates from 2003 to 2013.
Lawmakers have promised to do something to get more money to roads this session as business leaders have increased pressure by warning South Carolina’s economic growth could slow down if congestion increases while the condition of the highways decreases.
“South Carolina has enjoyed unprecedented growth. We just haven’t kept up with the infrastructure,’’ said Rock Hill Republican Rep. Gary Simrill, who was put in charge of the House’s efforts to improve highway funding.
The House is grappling with two ideas. Simrill was in charge of a committee that met for months in 2014, coming up with a proposal to lower the gas tax, which is paid by retailers, while raising the sales tax on fuel, which is paid by wholesalers when they buy in bulk. That combined with other revenue would raise an additional $400 million for roads.
A proposal by Gov. Nikki Haley would raise the state’s gas tax by 10 cents. But she has said she will only support it if lawmakers pass a reduction in state income tax rates over 10 years that would roughly match the gas tax increase. Both Simrill’s and Haley’s proposals have been introduced in the House, and Simrill hopes the House can get back to talking about them by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, the Senate may have different ideas. While the governor and House have focused on the $400 million that DOT Director Janet Oakley said is enough to keep roads in their current condition, some senators think that’s not enough. The DOT has said it would take $1.5 billion extra a year to get all the state’s roads to good condition by 2040.
“Does this Senate want to put a Band-Aid on it, or fix the problem?’’ asked Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, who has lead his chamber’s efforts to solve the problem.
In February, Cleary held a Senate committee’s first hearings on what to do about roads. There are a number of different bills in the Senate with solutions ranging from tolling Interstate 95 at the bridge over Lake Marion to borrowing money to expand interstates to figuring out a way to raise the gas tax, but only charge out-of-state residents.
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