Some Upstate legislators see gas tax hike key to funding road improvements

The Greenville NewsNovember 23, 2013 

— Upstate business leaders rallied for road improvements Friday, but state lawmakers said they aren’t sure who’s listening in Columbia.

Members of 12 chambers of commerce that lobby together as the Upstate Chamber Coalition met at BMW Manufacturing Co. in Greer with legislators, transportation officials and local government leaders to discuss what one chamber official called a “crisis” in South Carolina’s road infrastructure.

Among the speakers was Ron Patton, the state Department of Transportation’s chief engineer for planning, location and design. He told the gathering that South Carolina is estimated to need $29.3 billion over 20 years to bring its highway system to a “good” condition.

Bill Ross of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads said his coalition of companies, nonprofit organizations and chambers of commerce advocates a more realistic figure of $6 billion in additional road money over a decade.

Phil Leazer, engineering project manager for York County, said that county has used a 1 percent sales tax hike to generate $645 million for road improvements since 1997. York voters have approved the tax during referendums three times, he said, with 82 percent approval the last time it was on the ballot in 2011.

Allen Smith, chief executive of the Greater Greer Chamber of Commerce and moderator for the event, said he thinks Upstate business leaders are united in seeing a “crisis” for South Carolina’s road infrastructure, even if they’re not yet advocating a particular solution.

Some at the summit said the Legislature needs to consider raising the state’s 16 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1987, or at least tying it to the inflation rate.

Rep. Tommy Stringer, a Greer Republican, said former Gov. Carroll Campbell agreed to raise the gas tax in 1987 because he realized how important roads were for economic development.

“That was back in the days when we had legislative leadership, when we had people in the Upstate that had a vision about where we needed to go and how to get there,” said Stringer, whose proposal to raise the gas tax earlier this year went nowhere.

Rep. Dan Hamilton, a Republican from Taylors, said he is willing to tie the gas tax to the inflation rate, but he doesn’t support raising it beyond that without also restructuring the Department of Transportation.

Hamilton said the road-funding issue has been getting more attention now that Greenville County Council is debating whether to impose a 1 percent sales tax hike for road improvements.

“The more we talk about it, the more public input we get, the better,” Hamilton said.

State Sen. Thomas Alexander, a Republican from Walhalla, said he’s afraid some lawmakers will argue that the $600 million they allocated this year for road improvements is enough to solve the problem.

He doesn’t think so, and is advocating legislation that would tie the gas tax to the inflation rate, among other things, and provide $500,000 a year to counties that adopt a 1 percent sales tax for road improvements.

Alexander said Campbell persuaded him to vote for a gas tax hike back in 1987 and he didn’t advocate it again until the last two or three years as he’s watched South Carolina’s roads deteriorate “while other states have stepped up to the plate and done what was necessary to have better roads.”

State Sen. Tom Corbin, a Blue Ridge Republican who did not attend the summit, said he doesn’t support a gas tax hike because he thinks “people are taxed enough.” State revenues have soared over the past two years “with very little dedicated to core functions of government,” Corbin said.

State Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican who also wasn’t at the summit, said he’s willing to tie the gas tax to the inflation rate but raising it beyond that will be difficult since Gov. Nikki Haley has promised a veto and every member of the House is up for re-election next year.

“You’ve got to do what’s possible,” Martin said.

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