Senators take ax to small roads agency

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 10, 2013 

— A state agency criticized for sending highway money to only a few South Carolina counties will be disolved if two senators make good on a plan they announced Thursday.

State Sens. Vincent Sheheen and Harvey Peeler introduced legislation to get rid of the state Infrastructure Bank and place its duties under the S.C. Department of Transportation.

The bill is likely to ignite a fight between senators from areas that have received money from the bank, and those from counties that have not.

Sheheen, D-Kershaw, said the Infrastructure Bank needs oversight to make sure all areas of the state get equal treatment.

“When you have the Infrastructure Bank controlled by just a few people ... the long-term result of that is the existing roads and the places where there is real need get neglected,’’ Sheheen said. “Only a few counties see hundreds of millions of dollars going their way. That’s just a bad situation.’’

Since its inception in 1997, the seven-member Infrastructure Bank has steered 60 percent to 70 percent of the road funds it controls to three counties: Charleston, Horry and Greenville, records show. Counties such as Richland and Kershaw have gotten little or nothing.

Four of the board’s members are appointed by the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore, both of whom were from Charleston until recently. In recent years, the bank has committed more than $500 million to a single highway project in Charleston County that has caused an uproar in the Lowcountry because of its environmental impacts.

The Infrastructure Bank receives about $130 million from the state’s gasoline tax and other funds, leveraging the money to finance major highway projects. It has approved billions of dollars for road work since its inception.

The bank “has been force feeding asphalt to the coast, while the Upstate and many rural areas starve,” Peeler, R-Cherokee, said. “It just doesn’t make sense to have one state agency building expensive new roads when we can’t even keep up with our current maintenance needs. I’m pleased to have bipartisan support on a much-needed reform that will help get the politics out of road building.”

The bill was introduced a day after conservationist Dana Beach urged lawmakers to get rid of the Infrastructure Bank, saying it is too political and doesn’t focus on the state’s highway needs. Beach said the Mark Clark Expressway extension is a prime example of a poor funding choice by the bank. He said I-26 from Charleston to Columbia is a greater road priority because of congestion.

Despite criticism, supporters of the bank say it has helped fund needed projects, such as a new bridge over the Cooper River at Charleston and the Carolina Bays Parkway at Myrtle Beach. In both cases, the work helped ease traffic clogs and made thoroughfares safer, boosters said.

Dissolving the bank “is the wrong position to take,’’ said Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican who was Senate president pro tem until last year. “It was created to fund mega-sized projects the DOT could not handle on their revenue streams. Big projects across South Carolina would never have occurred and will never occur unless you have a bank.’’

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