Upstate gets powerful ally for more transportation funding

10/08/2013 7:47 PM

03/14/2015 6:32 AM

A powerful state senator who also serves on the board that makes transportation loans is asking highway department officials to find the money to finish improving Interstate 85 to the North Carolina border, arguing that the Upstate has been shorted in transportation funding over the years.

The request came after the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank delayed action on selecting which projects will receive funding as a result of this year’s appropriation by lawmakers for road and bridge repairs.

The Department of Transportation board had sent the bank a list of seven recommended projects to be funded using $550 million in bonds made possible by $50 million in legislative appropriations. Three of those projects concerned improvements along I-85.

Sen. Hugh Leatherman of Florence, a member of the bank board who chairs both the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Bond Review Committee, told bank and transportation department officials that more transportation funding has gone to projects from the Midlands to the coast over the years than the Upstate and he believes more should be done to alleviate congestion along I-85.

“If you go back and look over a 10-year period or a 15-year period, I think from the Midlands to the coast has got the majority of the interstate money,” he told The Greenville News. “We’ve got to change that. We’ve got to get some relief up to the Upstate.”

To help do that, Leatherman asked Department of Transportation officials to look for funding to complete the last segment of improvements to I-85 from Greenville to the North Carolina border, a 10-mile portion that would cost $171 million to widen to six lanes and improve three interchanges.

That segment was already included in another project that the transportation department has submitted for funding help to the bank board but the stretch to the border was unfunded.

The other proposals related to I-85 submitted to the bank include a project to improve the I-85 and I-385 interchange, at a total cost of $240 million; one to improve 25 miles of I-85 in Greenville and Spartanburg counties, including ramps and widening of mainlines, at a cost of $241 million; and widening 16 miles of I-85 in Spartanburg and Cherokee counties at a cost of $262 million.

Federal monies also would be used for the projects.

Ron Patton, the Department of Transportation’s chief engineer of planning, told Leatherman that transportation funding is split equitably now between the Midlands and the Upstate for current projects, either under construction or pending.

But Leatherman said that hasn’t been true over the past two decades.

“I would personally encourage the DOT to figure out a way to get that third segment done on I-85,” he said.

Patton said the project is needed but the agency couldn’t find the funding for it and chose to focus on the other two segments where there is more traffic congestion.

Transportation department Chairman Johnny Edwards of Travelers Rest said he agrees with Leatherman that the segment is needed.

“I agree with him (Leatherman) 100 percent,” Edwards said after the meeting.

“The Upstate has lacked in road work and we need lots of work on I-85 and I-26. We’ve got that new (inland) port that is going to open this month and you’re going to have trucks coming up I-85 both ways to get to that port.”

He said while it wasn’t discussed, the other section of I-85 not touched by improvements, from Anderson County to the Georgia line, would be expensive to widen because of the bridges over Lake Hartwell.

Edwards said the agency doesn’t have the $171 million needed for the third segment of I-85. “If we had an extra $171 million we would be putting it on maintenance of existing roads,” he said.

Leatherman said the state needs more spent on its roads and bridges and lawmakers should address that need next year.

The package approved this year included $50 million to facilitate the issuance of $550 million in bonds, $41 million from the state vehicle sales tax and $50 million in surplus money. The funds not used for bonds would go for improvements to secondary roads not eligible for federal aid and for bridge repairs.

A task force last year estimated that the state would need $29 billion over 20 years to bring all of the state’s roads and bridges up to an acceptable condition.

“At some point in time we have to address revenue going to DOT,” Leatherman said. “There is just not enough money going over there to do what needs to be done.”

Leatherman, who championed the last gas tax increase through the Senate in 1987, said he has always supported increasing the tax, which he describes as a user fee.

“My folks tell me, ‘Fix that road and we’re willing to pay for it,”’ he said. “And I think if we show them that DOT is a good steward of the money, and doing a good job fixing those roads, I bet you the vast majority of South Carolinians would say that.”

The bank board is to meet later this month to take up the specific projects to be funded by the bonds.

Edwards voted against the motion to delay consideration of the projects on Tuesday. He said afterward that the delay took him by surprise.

“The projects we brought to the SIB board were good projects,” he said. “They were generated under Act. 114 and I see no reason to delay it. We need to get asphalt on the ground. The longer we drag it out, the more expensive it’s going to be.”

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler of Gaffney, who was in the audience when the the board voted to delay taking up the projects, said he was surprised and upset at the board’s actions.

“In the meantime, the death count goes up on Interstate 85,” he said. “And people who want to get into Greenville cannot get in and the people who want to get out of Greenville can’t get out. I hope there is wisdom in the delay, but they haven’t convinced me it was a wise move.”

The other projects recommended by the Department of Transportation include:

• Widening 19 miles of I-526 to six lanes near Charleston at a total cost of $561 million.
• Widening 10 miles of I-20 to six lanes in Lexington County at a cost of $154.7 million.
• Widening three miles of I-77 to six lanes between I-20 and State Highway 277 in Richland County at a cost of $38.7 million.
• Creating an express lane and other improvements along a congested part of I-26 outside Columbia at a cost of $90 million.

The bank delayed the vote after one member said he needed more time to review the projects.

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