Tempest brews over how SC should spend $500 million on roads

abeam@thestate.comOctober 23, 2013 

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • 4 Midlands, Upstate projects proposed The state Infrastructure Board, which meets today, has been expected to approve four Midlands and Upstate projects previously recommended to it by the state Transportation Department. Those projects, which remain on the table, are:

    Widening I-20 in Lexington County from U.S. 378 (Exit 61) to Longs Pond Road (Exit 51)

    Widening I-77 in Richland County from I-20 (Exit 16) to S.C. 277 (Exit 18)

    Replacing exit ramps and widening lanes at the interchange of Interstates 85 and 385 in Greenville County

    Widening I-85 in Spartanburg and Cherokee counties from Gossett Road to S.C. 18

Coming up with $600 million to build roads was easy, in retrospect. The hard part is deciding where to spend it.

That has some S.C. lawmakers wringing their hands as a powerful state board decides Thursday where and how to spend money that many in the General Assembly consider to be the crowning achievement of the 2013 legislative session.

At stake is the fate of four road projects in the Midlands and Upstate versus the possibility of “more options in the Lowcountry.”

The state Transportation Infrastructure Bank board – seven members appointed by various state officials – met earlier this month to approve four road projects in the Midlands and Upstate. But the board delayed the vote at the last minute, asking the state Department of Transportation to give it more options.

“I was kind of shocked,” said Infrastructure Bank board member Johnny Edwards of Greenville, who is also chairman of the state Transportation Department commission that recommended the four projects. “They just wanted to study them a little bit more was the excuse I got.”

Infrastructure Board member Max Metcalf of Greenville said the board voted to delay the projects because members had two questions: They were not sure how much money they would have to spend and they wanted to know more details about the proposed projects “before we approve such a major funding program.” He said board members will discuss both concerns in a meeting scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday.

Infrastructure Board member Chip Limehouse, a Republican state representative from Charleston, said the vote was delayed “to give the board more flexibility as to what projects they can consider,” adding, “I’d always like to see more options in the Lowcountry.”

It is that last comment that has many road-funding advocates worried.

Historically, lawmakers have used gas taxes to pay for road construction. But, as road needs have piled up, the Republican-controlled Legislature has refused to increase the gas tax for fear of being labeled tax-and-spend liberals.

The result, critics say, is South Carolina has the third-lowest gas tax in the country and, according to an estimate by the state Transportation Department, a $29 billion shortfall in road-funding needs.

That huge shortfall prompted lawmakers to search for some other way to pay for road construction, leading to this year’s road-funding bill. That bill, for the first time, used something other than gas taxes to build roads. Lawmakers set aside $50 million in existing money from the state’s general fund – made up of state income and sales taxes – and gave it to the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank. The board is unique in that it can use the $50 million in state money to borrow up to $600 million – all without it counting against the state’s constitutional debt limit.

But many lawmakers have a deep distrust of the Infrastructure Bank, thinking it favors the Lowcountry’s road needs at the expense of the rest of the state. And, if lawmakers are unhappy with how the Infrastructure Bank decides to spend its newfound money, it could derail any future efforts to use income and sales tax dollars to pay for road construction.

“My hope was that that $50 million in recurring monies would expand to $100 million next year. But it would be a very difficult sell to the General Assembly to expand that if it was discovered the system was manipulated,” said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I would have felt more at ease if the (Infrastructure Bank) had taken the list that was already submitted to them from the Department of Transportation.”

The Transportation Department recommended the Infrastructure Bank approve four projects, all in the Midlands or Upstate (click on the bubble or black lines in the map above to learn more:

• Widening I-20 in Lexington County from U.S. 378 (Exit 61) to Longs Pond Road (Exit 51)

• Widening I-77 in Richland County from I-20 (Exit 16) to SC 277 (Exit 18)

• Replacing exit ramps and widening lanes at the interchange of Interstates 85 and 385 in Greenville County

• Widening I-85 in Spartanburg and Cherokee counties from Gossett Road to S.C. 18

“The reason you’ve got so much interest in what’s going on is just to be sure that everything goes as was intended so that we can go back and fight for more funding for infrastructure in this state,” said state Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington.

Setzler, the leader of minority Democrats in the Senate, is not the only interested observer.

“Governor Haley is watching the (state Infrastructure Board’s) actions very closely,” said Haley spokesman Doug Mayer. “We fully expect the SIB to select construction projects based on priority, not politics,” said Mayer, adding Infrastructure Bank board members Don Leonard Ernest Duncan – both Haley appointees – “agree.”

Limehouse, who wrote the law that created the Infrastructure Bank, says the fears of a Lowcountry conspiracy are unfounded. Since its creation, the Infrastructure Bank has spent $3 billion on projects in 18 counties throughout the state.

“This is not a matter of pitting one part of the state against another part of the state,” Limehouse said. “I would suggest to any lawmakers who have problems with the way the state Infrastructure Bank is appropriating money, instead of worrying about the priority list, figure out ways to adequately fund roads and bridges in South Carolina.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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