When legislators passed a law six years ago to reform the state Department of Transportation, one aim was to reduce the political influence wielded in the decisions of what roads got built or fixed.
They ushered in a priority system that ranked projects based on need and safety. The much-heralded law is now openly derided as a joke.
There’s a new movement afoot in the Legislature to try again to fix it — as the state’s residents face a crumbling network of roads, and ample evidence that priorities have been often tossed aside in steering precious dollars toward new asphalt.
“I think it’s a good start to try and prioritize the spending,” Rep. Tommy Stringer of Greenville, a member of a subcommittee that approved the bill, told GreenvilleOnline.com.
Blan Holman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which reviews transportation projects for compliance with environmental law, said the proposed changes will make it easier to build roads.
“We’ve got limited tax money. We need to figure out how to spend it that helps the most people,” he said.
“When we get a unified system like that, I think what you’ll find is roads will get built quicker and there’s going to be more consensus on what needs to be done. If you can spend the money without prioritization, then what’s the point of prioritization?”
Others say the bill could make the system more fair, especially for areas of the state without interstates or powerful lawmakers.
The legislation is moving forward at a time when lawmakers are set to significantly increase funding for the Department of Transportation in an attempt to begin repairing an infrastructure that by one estimate has a $29 billion construction and maintenance backlog.
Lawmakers say they want to be sure with increased funding that the money is distributed to where it is needed and not as a result of political influence.
Sen. Larry Grooms, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said lawmakers knew when they passed the 2007 law that they would eventually have to evaluate how well their changes worked.
“I want to be very careful as we move forward to remove politics as much as possible and that we build roads for actual need instead of political preference.”
The problem, lawmakers say, is that when they reformed DOT and mandated a priority system, they also left loopholes.
New construction wasn’t included in the priority system, nor were projects funded by the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank.
There was no requirement that a project’s costs equal the estimated benefits nor that DOT proceed with projects in the order in which they were ranked in the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.
The system’s flaws were publicly exposed in 2011, when the DOT board moved to approve a $344 million bond proposal for five projects, some of which weren’t ranked. Former Commissioner Sarah Nuckles opposed the plan and moved repeatedly to stop it, arguing that it was done without adequate public notice and would spend money on projects not ranked the highest.
Other commissioners countered that each of the projects, which included $105 million toward starting construction on the proposed state link for Interstate 73, offered economic development benefits.
The commission, after several votes, eventually abandoned the proposal, leaving each project to stand on its own.
Critics have also complained about expensive transportation projects being funded through the Infrastructure Bank that aren’t required to be ranked in DOT’s priority list, such as a proposed $558 million extension of I-526 in Charleston, though the bank uses its own scoring system for projects.
Ron Patton, chief engineer for planning and design at DOT, told the subcommittee that some of what is sought by the bill is already in the works at his agency. And he said the agency has been following the priority system set up by the 2007 law.
That law requires DOT to develop a priority list using the criteria of financial viability, including life-cycle costs, public safety, potential for economic development, traffic volume and congestion, truck traffic, pavement quality, environmental impact, alternative transportation solutions and local land use policy.
The new law would add a cost-benefit analysis requirement. It also would require DOT to “use the ranked priority list when selecting projects to fund.”
Patton said DOT is in the process of developing a cost-benefit analysis system for projects and is looking at computer-model programs that produce such analysis.
He told lawmakers that projects are ranked by the program they are funded for. And each has its own criteria, such as interstates.
“If it’s a bridge program, the need there is based upon the structural deficiency of the bridges,” he said. “Economic development is less important than the structural integrity of the bridge.”
Timelines dictate funding
He said one reason highway commissioners seemingly approve funding for projects out of their ranked order is because not all projects can be built on the same timeline.
A coastal project, he said, might involve environmental and mitigation issues and will take two or three years. Rather than wait for that before proceeding down the list, the commission may approve several others ranked lower on the list that have their right-of-way lined up and are ready to go, he said.
“It creates an additional cost to the project by delaying the others,” he said. “That is a concern we have, a fiscal impact if we have to go strictly in order.”
Others said the system needs change.
Leonora Powe, vice chairman of the Chesterfield County Council, said it has tried unsuccessfully for years to get State Highway 9 widened in her area because of massive traffic congestion, due in part to trucks from a Walmart distribution center.
But the project has never ranked high enough to get funded, she said, and visits to DOT board meetings were “just a joke.”
“I think if you put the prioritization in the hands of the people who are actually going to do the work, I think it would be better and a more transparent way to help projects in this state,” she said.
Rep. Ralph Norman, a York County Republican, said he supports the bill.
“The current system we’ve got, like the lady said, is a joke,” he said. “Politics come into play. Act 114 is useless if you’re not going to go by it. That’s why we need something like this.”
Sen. Ray Cleary, who chaired a special Senate subcommittee that recommended legislation to raise new money for the state’s roads and bridges, said one flaw in the priority system now is that small or rural counties with less-traveled highways cannot compete in a priority system with more urban areas that have larger traffic volumes.
“How does a rural road get past a Charleston road?” he asked.
Cleary said the issue boils down to fairness, comparing rural and urban, fast-growing areas with slow-growing areas, and treating each equally.
Bill Ross, executive director of the South Carolina Alliance To Fix Our Roads, said one omission in the new bill are projects funded by the Infrastructure Bank. Operating a transportation system in which one set of priorities are used by one system and another by another system isn’t the most effective way to spend limited dollars, he said.
Otis Rawl, president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports the bill.
The bill wouldn’t apply to projects funded wholly by the federal or local governments. And an amendment would allow the transportation secretary to alter the ranking for legal or environmental reasons, to take into account projects that might involve permitting issues and litigation.
Rep. Phil Owens, a Pickens Republican who heads the House Education and Public Works Committee, said he wants all the parties involved, including DOT, to reach agreement “on how this would improve the current ranking system we are using.”
“If the parties have come together, then I think there is an opportunity to move forward,” he said.
The bill, if it is passed by the full committee, must still be approved by the House and then by the Senate to become law.