COLUMBIA, SC — The S.C. House’s top budget writer has an idea about how the state can close its $29 billion deficit in money that it has for road repairs over the next 20 years: Give some roads away.
Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Tuesday he is pushing a proposal to turn over some of the state’s 41,409 miles of roads to local governments.
“We’ve got to get forward thinking and progressive down the road, not only from just repairing and maintaining what we have,” said White, “but we might not need all that we have.”
While South Carolina is the 10th smallest state in the country geographically, it has the fourth-largest state-owned highway system, a byproduct of the years when the state Legislature controlled local governments.
House lawmakers increasingly are frustrated by the state Department of Transportation’s maintenance of that massive road system. That frustration was on display at the department’s budget hearing Tuesday, highlighted by three House Republicans publicly thrashing the agency.
“We want to help you, but we want to feel like we are not putting money in a hole,” state Rep. Bill Hixon, R-Aiken, told transportation officials. “Our interstates are unraveling.”
The idea behind White’s proposal is to turn over some smaller roads to local governments, leaving the state to concentrate on the bigger roads. It is similar to a proposal that Republican Gov. Nikki Haley pushed in 2012 – and again last year – to set aside $75 million to pay local governments to take over state-owned roads.
White’s proposal still is being drafted, so it’s unclear how much it would cost. But he pitched it as an alternative to raising the state’s gas tax – at 16.5 cents per gallon, the third-lowest in the country. White said he wants to focus on smaller roads, mostly in cities, that need repairs but are not high enough on the state’s priority repair list.
“Just fix it, and then we don’t have to fix it for the next five or 10 years. Then, we will work on the recurring (money),” White said. “By giving it to local control, you are reducing the sheer size (of the system) and it gets us on a better footing.”
But local governments worry the state just would be passing them an expensive problem.
“Roads are recurring expenses,” said Robert Croom, deputy counsel for the S.C. Association of Counties. “In this instance, you will have a one time quick fix maybe, depending on how much (money) they send. But, in five years, the holes will be there again and you won’t have any money to fix them.”
State Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter, D-Orangeburg, one of the senior Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee, said any proposal to give state roads to local governments would have to come with recurring money.
“Orangeburg county has 1,100 square miles ... and we probably have more dirt roads than a lot of counties,” she said. “It doesn’t do us a lot of good in Orangeburg County to have the responsibility without the money given the amount of roads that need paving,” she said.
A Transportation Department spokesman said while the agency has not seen White’s proposal, it generally supports plans to turn over some state-owned roads to local governments.
By the numbers
$48.3 billion: Money needed for S.C. road repairs over the next 20 years
$19 billion: Money S.C. is projected to have to pay for those repairs
$29 billion: Expected shortfall
SOURCE: S.C. Department of Transportation
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.