The U.S. House overwhelmingly approved a $305 billion highway bill Thursday that would give South Carolina more than $3.5 billion in highway funding during the next five years, starting with $679 million in fiscal year 2016.
The 359-65 vote advances the first federal transportation funding legislation since 2005 to last longer than two years. In recent years, Congress has passed a series of short-term patches that made it difficult for states to plan long-term infrastructure projects and transit plans. The bill also revives the Export-Import Bank, a controversial federal lending agency that’s divided South Carolina’s Republican delegation in Congress, and includes several changes to transportation policy.
Money for S.C. road projects
The highway bill assures long-term infrastructure funding that comes at a crucial point for South Carolina, where roads are still being repaired in the Midlands after historic flooding in October.
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Before they can focus on new projects, officials at the state Department of Transportation are concentrating on just making the damaged roads passable, said spokesman Pete Poore. Flood repair costs are separate from the highway bill funding, and include emergency funding from the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The department is down to 58 road and bridge closures from a high of 541 on Oct. 5, and it’s working on 32 of them. The remaining 26 roads cross collapsed dams that are not owned by the department.
Even without the flood damage, 10 percent of the state’s major roads are in poor condition, and driving on them costs South Carolinians $1.3 billion a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs, or $378 per motorist, according to the transportation research group TRIP. Bridges aren’t faring much better, with more than 20 percent structurally unsound or functionally obsolete, according to the group.
The bill also would give South Carolina $249 million in mass transit funding, according to a preliminary analysis by the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington.
Export-Import bank returns
The measure would reauthorize the Export-Import Bank until 2019. The federal lending agency that makes low-interest loans to aid foreign purchases of American-made goods has split South Carolina Republicans in Washington.
Congress allowed the bank’s charter to expire in June, effectively putting it out of business, because of opposition from some House Republicans who argue that these loans interfere with the free market. South Carolina Reps. Mick Mulvaney and Jeff Duncan joined other tea party conservatives in opposing the bank, accusing it of providing taxpayer-funded “corporate welfare.” Both voted against the highway bill.
“I don’t think the government should distort the market, which is exactly what they’re doing,” Mulvaney said Thursday. “The gains will be concentrated in small areas, it’s a traditional case of picking winners and losers – except it’s easy to see the winners – and the losses are diffused among small companies.”
The bank’s two main beneficiaries, General Electric and Boeing, blamed the uncertainty over the bank’s future when they announced U.S. job cuts this fall, including in their South Carolina locations.