An influential S.C. lawmaker wants to give control of roughly half of the state-owned roads to counties as a way to address the state’s multibillion dollar road needs.
Counties also would get more of the state’s gas tax revenues to pay for the upkeep of those roads, said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, who chairs a special House committee tasked with reforming the state Transportation Department.
Simrill is considering other options as well, including letting voters decide in 2016 if they want to increase the statewide 6 percent sales tax by another penny to pay for roads. In addition, he wants to consider getting rid of the gas tax altogether, and instead applying the sales tax to gasoline.
Some county leaders aren’t thrilled by the road transfer idea. The roads they already own are expensive enough to maintain, and adding more would not solve the problem, they say.
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Simrill’s ideas are up for discussion as it becomes clear that an increase to the state’s 16.75-cent-per-gallon gas tax likely will not be part of the solution to challenge of improving South Carolina’s roads.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who won a second term earlier this month, has said she would veto a gas tax increase. And the GOP-controlled House is averse to tax increases.
In addition, voters in two of the state’s largest counties, Lexington and Greenville, this month rejected penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increases that would have paid for road projects.
But the more than $40 billion challenge of fixing S.C. roads could be set on the back burner. Instead, the General Assembly could find itself having to focus on a Supreme Court ruling last week that said the state is not doing enough for students in poor school districts. That ruling is expected to force the state to spend more on K-12 education.
That could make it even more difficult to find dollars for roads.
“There is no magic pot of money that’s suddenly going to appear to fix roads,” Haley said at a press conference after she was re-elected.
Haley said she has met with legislators, S.C. Department of Transportation secretary Janet Oakley and officials with the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and the S.C. Trucking Association about her own plan for roads, which she says she will release in January.
Members of Simrill’s will hear from infrastructure advocates Tuesday, their fifth meeting, as they try to come up with a roads plan of their own for the next legislative session, which begins in January.
‘We need to stop pointing at each other’
The state owns 41,414 miles of roads, the fourth-largest road system in the nation behind Texas, North Carolina and Virginia.
That is too many miles for a small state like South Carolina to maintain, said Simrill, the House assistant majority leader.
The Transportation Department says it needs $70.4 billion through 2040 to maintain and expand the state’s transportation system. But it will have only $27.6 billion in revenues coming in to meet that need.
That is nearly a $43 billion gap in the money needed for highway, bridge and transit systems over the next 26 years, or a deficit of roughly $1.5 billion a year.
But Simrill criticizes that figure, noting it includes $21.5 billion for construction and maintenance of roads that have not yet been paved or do not even exist.
Simrill said some of the state’s 18,844 miles in less-traveled roads should be given to the counties.
But the counties may not want the roads.
As an incentive, the counties would have to be given more money to pay for the added roads, Simrill said. In addition, he proposes an added sweetener – protecting the local government fund, money the state gives counties and cities each year. That fund has been threatened since the Great Recession.
Simrill suggests increasing the amount of money that counties receive from the state’s current gas tax.
“If you are divesting of roads from the state system back to the locals, there has to be funding attached to it,” he said.
County officials are divided on the idea.
In terms of local management, it makes sense for counties to maintain roads as long as the state provides added money, York County Council chairman Britt Blackwell said.
“I certainly want to be a team player with the state,” Blackwell said. “Everybody wins when we are a team player.”
But other county officials are not interested.
Lexington County cannot fix the roads it has now, said council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat.
“We have a serious problem out here,” Jeffcoat said, adding that the county has considered asking the state for help.
Still, a solution is needed for roads, he said.
“We need to stop pointing at each other and saying, ‘Why don’t you take my roads and fix them?’ ”
Frustrated county could revolt
That Simrill’s plan would protect the local government fund is a plus for counties.
Local governments received $213 million from that fund this year. But that was $74.5 million less than they should have, based on a formula set in state law.
Lexington County officials are frustrated by steady erosion in that state aid in recent years, saying the county is receiving $2 million less annually now.
That cutback is putting the squeeze on county services, including law enforcement and emergency medical care, county leaders say.
If the trend continues, some Lexington County Council members have discussed cutting aid for local offices of state agencies, including Social Services and Health and Environmental Control.
“That would be the first thing I would suggest,” said Councilman Jim Kinard of Swansea.
‘Not passing the buck’
Simrill says he does not want to force counties to take over local roads.
“We’re all representing the same people driving on the same roads, just in different layers of government,” he said.
Regardless of who has control of the roads, somebody has to pay to maintain them, said Bill Ross of the S.C. Alliance To Fix Our Roads.
Ross supports an increase in the state gas tax, which has not increased since 1987, as part of a comprehensive solution.
Increasing the tax by one penny, to 17.75 cents per gallon, would bring in about $33 million a year.
The majority of likely S.C. voters surveyed in the latest Winthrop Poll oppose increasing that tax. However, the majority also said they would support an increase if South Carolina’s tax remained lower than the gas tax in neighboring states.
Simrill also wants to let voters decide whether to increase the state’s 6 percent sales tax, with the added money going for roads. And he wants to consider getting rid of the gas tax altogether, replacing it with the state’s sales tax.
Heading into the weekend, the S.C. average price of a gallon of gasoline was $2.67. Applying the state’s sales tax to that gallon of gas – instead of the 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax – would cost roughly 2 cents less per gallon. But the tax would increase and could surpass the gas tax if the cost of gasoline, now relatively low, goes up.
Giving some roads back to counties is “not passing the buck,” Simrill said. “It’s not pushing a problem to someone else.
“I want it to have a funding mechanism, and I want to build consensus with the county transportation committees on the best way to make this work.”