SCDOT Reform Stalls; Road, Bridge Funds in Jeopardy

A Senate panel has discussed DOT reform bills twice in two weeks and gotten nowhere.

Wed April 15, 2015 - Southeast Edition
Jeffrey Collins - ASSOCIATED PRESS

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) A plan to change how the state Department of Transportation operates is stalled in the South Carolina Senate and could derail the entire proposal to get more money to roads and bridges.

Gov. Nikki Haley has vowed to veto any bill that doesn’t include DOT reform along with income tax relief and additional money for roads. Lawmakers have less than two months to get it all accomplished before the session ends in June.

Complicating matters is a change eight years ago that allowed the governor to appoint the leader of DOT. That change ends in July, meaning doing nothing would remove any of the governor’s control of the agency.

The House is much further along with a roads plan that is more aligned with Haley’s wishes. The bill on the House floor when the session resumes April 14 would raise an additional $400 million for roads and allow the governor to appoint all eight members of the DOT commission, which would be screened by a panel of House members and senators. Those commissioners would appoint the DOT leader. Haley’s biggest problem with the House plan is that its $50 million income tax cut is not enough.

A Senate panel has discussed DOT reform bills twice in two weeks and gotten nowhere. The debate is reminiscent of 2007, when senators filibustered for three weeks before passing a DOT reform bill, then held up the state budget before working out a compromise with a different version in the House.

Sen. Larry Grooms pushed that 2007 reform bill, which also required DOT to use a formula to set priorities for all but the largest highway projects. He said he wonders if some senators are stalling because they want to go back to the old system where the Legislature held all the power over roads and which project got funded first often was decided by which senator needed to be kept happy.

“Unfortunately, there are many legislators who want to go back to the system of horse trading because they think they would fare better,’’ said Grooms, R-Charleston, and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Grooms said he doesn’t understand all the anger toward the current DOT commission, which he calls the best he has ever seen.

DOT Board Chairman Jim Rozier has his own theory. He thinks the criticism is a smokescreen to make up for years of inadequate funding from lawmakers that have left the state roads and bridges crumbling and full of potholes.

“The roads are falling apart under us. They are going to continue to fall apart unless they start putting some more money into it. I don’t care who they have running things,’’ Rozier said.

Rozier said an additional $400 million won’t do anything to make state roads better. He is calling for lawmakers to get closer to the $1.4 billion the DOT said it needs per year to get all roads to good condition by 2040.

Haley remains a critic of the current structure of the DOT board. She said a board completely appointed by the governor is the best for all of South Carolina roads.

“Gov. Haley knows we can’t keep throwing money at a system that lacks accountability because too many people think they are in charge. Right now, transportation commissioners — selected by local delegations to represent a specific district — fight each other for state funds to support their own local interests rather than doing what’s best for the entire state,’’ Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said in a statement.

The allegations that the current DOT board operates in secrecy and approves projects based on favors bothers Rozier the most. He said everyone on the board agrees improving Interstate 26 on its 200-mile trek from Charleston to Spartanburg is the biggest priority.

“Even the guy in Myrtle Beach agrees that is the No. 1 need in the state,’’ Rozier said.

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