Columbia gains voice at state road agency

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 9, 2013 

— Former state Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor of Columbia has been appointed to a highway-financing board criticized for spending money in a handful of counties, rather than spreading the money around South Carolina.

Taylor’s appointment to the state Infrastructure Bank could help Columbia gain traction in the statewide competition for road funds.

Taylor said he will use his position on the state Infrastructure Bank board to look at projects of statewide significance, but he said two road projects that affect Columbia would be worth consideration for funding by the seven-member committee.

Interstate 26 needs widening from Columbia to Charleston, and the Columbia area also needs money to build an airport connector to I-26, he said.

In the Upstate, Taylor said, I-85 needs widening from the Georgia to the North Carolina border.

“You have to look at everything from a statewide perspective,” Taylor said. “When there are projects in the Midlands that have statewide ramifications or a state level of importance, there does need to be somebody in the Midlands who will advance those ideas and make sure that they get the same consideration as projects from other parts of the state.”

Since its inception in 1997, the Infrastructure Bank has committed 60 to 70 percent of the money it controls to just three counties: Charleston, Greenville and Horry, according to the S.C. Coastal Conservation League environmental group and bank board statistics. All told, the board has committed nearly $3 billion for road projects in South Carolina, according to the Infrastructure Bank.

Some bank board members have said areas receiving funding have been more aggressive than counties that did not receive money. Counties such as Charleston and Horry have come up with local funds to match Infrastructure Bank grants.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and former state Transportation Commissioner John Hardee said Taylor’s presence will help central South Carolina. Benjamin said Taylor’s appointment to the Infrastructure Bank board could help the city find money to relocate railroad tracks that regularly disrupt traffic on Assembly Street.

“This is an absolute plus for the Midlands,” said Hardee, a Columbia-area resident for whom the local airport connector would be named. “There are many projects that need to be completed. He will be a great asset to the board and hopefully look out for projects here in the Midlands, as some others have looked out for projects in their particular areas.”

The Infrastructure Bank provides money for major road, bridge and rail projects. The bank receives about $130 million annually in state revenue from gasoline taxes and other funds. The bank uses that money to borrow larger sums for road projects.

Taylor, 54, grew up in Columbia, attended Wofford College and built a successful log home business. He served as Commerce Secretary under Gov. Mark Sanford.

Taylor’s appointment, by Senate leader John Courson, R-Richland, also raised hopes among conservationists Tuesday that Taylor could help slow down a hotly disputed freeway project in the Charleston area. The bank board has committed $420 million to extend the Mark Clark Expressway south of the Holy City and last year agreed to spend another $130 million to $150 million on the project. Project opponents say the road, which is not a state priority, will chew up scenic slices of the Lowcountry and open development corridors in environmentally significant areas, such as John’s Island.

Freeway opponent Dana Beach said he wants Taylor to seek reconsideration of the project.

Beach, who plans to meet with Taylor today, said derailing the Mark Clark project would free up money to improve the Interstate 26 corridor between Columbia and Charleston by widening the road or adding additional rail service. The freeway near Charleston backs up daily with cars traveling out of town at rush hour and will see increasing use as the port of Charleston is expanded. Traffic jams and wrecks also occur on I-26 near Columbia.

“It is one of the three most important statewide transportation corridors,” Beach said. “We desperately need something to increase the capacity of 26. That is our first order of business.”

Taylor said he has not looked at the Mark Clark freeway extension project in enough detail to discuss the project yet.

Courson, the Senate president pro tempore, picked Taylor to replace Ric Tapp of Charleston. He also reappointed Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence. Courson praised both Leatherman and Taylor, noting the latter’s experience at the commerce department.

“Joe Taylor has a unique understanding of our economy and what it takes for companies to invest in South Carolina,” Courson said in a prepared statement. “South Carolina is incredibly fortunate to have someone of his caliber serving on this board.”

Courson made the appointment because he replaced Glenn McConnell as Senate leader. McConnell became lieutenant governor last year, following Ken Ard’s resignation.

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