COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) The new head of the state’s Transportation Department downplayed a $3 billion backlog in bridge repair needs Aug. 3 while saying that tax increases are needed to pay for repairs and upgrades around the state.
During a hearing before he was confirmed, Buck Limehouse was asked about the billions the state would need to spend during the next 20 years to address bridge concerns alone.
More than 1,000 bridges in South Carolina have the same “structurally deficient” designation given to an interstate bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman has long argued for raising fuel taxes and giving more money to the agency for bridge and road maintenance.
“We all know at some point in time, the state of South Carolina is going to have to generate additional revenue for the Department of Transportation,” he said. “And you know it may take a major bridge falling with a school bus on it to make us decide that its time to face the obligation” the state has.
More than 130 of the state’s 8,300 bridges have weight limits, and 10 are closed because of needed repairs, Limehouse said.
Limehouse told Leatherman that none of the bridges now open are unsafe, but more funding is needed for that to continue. Afterward, Limehouse said the state is already spending heavily on those needs.
“It’s not as grim as it sounds, because we’re putting in $100 million a year in now,” he said. “We’re short, but we’re not that short. And we’re taking care of the serious problems as they occur.”
The agency depends on federal and state motor fuel taxes to cover building and repairs. But more fuel efficient cars mean those tax collections are not rising as fast as the costs for steel, concrete and other building expenses, Limehouse said. If the state hadn’t packed 27 years of construction projects into seven years, “we’d really be behind the eight-ball now.”
Limehouse said legislators should remove a sales tax exemption from gasoline and diesel fuels, and some tax increases may be unavoidable.
“We should remove the exemption. And that will mean it will go up with inflation if gas goes to three or four or five dollars a gallon, then that will increase as it goes up,” he said.
“I do think an increase in the motor fuel tax is probably inevitable both on the state and the federal level,” Limehouse said, of taxes that haven’t been increased in nearly 20 years. “Costs are rising — construction costs particularly — and we just, we have to keep up with it.”
Limehouse, the state’s first secretary of transportation, has led the agency since highway commissioners named him executive director in May.
Legislators made reforming the agency a top priority after a state audit found DOT wasted tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and lacked accountability. A bill passed in June that made the DOT a Cabinet agency, which Gov. Mark Sanford has long advocated.