As South Carolina struggles with how to fund improvements to its battered road system, a former state transportation official said Wednesday the Palmetto State needs to take the politics out of which projects are built or upgraded.
Michael Covington, a former S.C. Department of Transportation government relations officer, said state law allows South Carolina’s Infrastructure Bank to build roads without following a priorities list.
Although bank officials have said they now use a priority list, state law doesn’t require it – and that needs to change, he told senators during a conservation issues briefing in Columbia.
“They’re still selecting projects largely based on politics,” Covington said.
Local governments have sought bank funding for projects, even though the state has other priorities, he said.
“When a local government comes to them and says, ‘We want to build this project, they need to say, ‘Where is it ranked?’” Covington said of the bank’s politically appointed, seven-member governing board. “Is it ranked as a state priority or is this just something you want to do to open up an area for development or whatever other purpose you are going to have?”
Covington now works with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, a Lowcountry environmental group that has pushed for highway reform for several years.
Included in the areas of concern is the Infrastructure Bank, a funding entity for roads that is separate from the S.C. Department of Transportation. While the Infrastructure Bank can fund roads without following a ranking, DOT projects follow a priority list, he said.
In recent years, the bank has been criticized for agreeing to finance the Interstate 526 extension in Charleston, an approximately $500 million project that the Conservation League says is environmentally damaging and too expensive.
The project remains in limbo. And much of the bank’s funding commitment has been tied up in the Charleston project.
Lawmakers in Columbia and other parts of the state have complained about the project, saying they have greater needs than Charleston does for a freeway extension looping around the Holy City. All told, some 70 percent of the bank’s funding commitments had gone to Horry, Charleston and Greenville counties, the Conservation League reported in 2013.
The 18-year-old state Infrastructure Bank is a small agency with a handful of staff members. It is governed by a part-time board. It was created in an attempt to help speed funding for major highway and interstate projects across South Carolina, such as the new Cooper River bridge in Charleston. It receives money through the state gasoline tax, using the funds to borrow greater sums for highway projects decided upon by its board.
Efforts to reach Don Leonard, chairman of the board, were unsuccessful Wednesday after the meeting in Columbia.