Richland County would get $7.2 million for road repairs if legislators approve a S.C. House proposal this week.
Lexington County would get $5.9 million and Kershaw County would get $3 million.
That money would come from spending $150 million of a $322.4 million state budget surplus on roads.
Considering the total needed to repair South Carolina’s crumbling roads and bridges statewide, “it’s (like) a raindrop in Lake Murray,” said Lexington County Administrator Joe Mergo.
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But those are the amounts that lawmakers will be debating when they return to Columbia this week to debate how much money to spend on road repairs in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
A proposal on how to spend the state surplus, passed by the House’s budget-writing panel, would divide $150 million among South Carolina’s 46 counties.
Midlands-area counties would receive varying amounts based on their population, geographic size and the miles of rural roads in each. For example, Calhoun County would get $1.3 million.
When they return, lawmakers also will be arguing over whether to spend more state money on road repairs – up to $300 million next year – and whether counties should be able to use state money to repair county-owned roads, as well as state-owned roads.
The $150 million proposal is less than a half percent of the roughly $40 billion shortfall in added money that the state Transportation Department has estimated is needed to repair and expand South Carolina’s road system through 2040.
“But at least it’s something,” said Lexington’s Mergo.
‘Anything is a plus’
State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, led the road repair debate in the S.C. House this session. His bill, which passed the House 87-20 in April, would have raised $427 million a year by increasing the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon and the cap on the state’s sales tax on vehicles to $500 from $300.
But road repair advocates watched that proposal change, then die in the S.C. Senate.
As a result, lawmakers are left debating how to divide at least $150 million among the counties.
Under the plan, Richland County would receive $7.2 million.
That would pay to resurface about 29 miles of two-lane state roads – at a cost of $250,000 a mile, according to the state Transportation Department. The $7.2 million would resurface about 1.8 percent of the 1,613 miles of state-maintained roads in Richland.
Lexington County would receive $5.9 million, which would pay to resurface about 23.5 miles of two-lane state roads, or 1.6 percent of the 1,510 miles of state- maintained roads in that county.
The state and various counties are assessing how many miles of roads in each county need to be repaired.
“Anything is a plus as far as money going back to the counties to resurface roads,” said state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, whose district includes parts of Lexington County.
Some lawmakers will argue for more state money to go to roads.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said in a budget conference committee meeting last week that at least $300 million in added money must go to roads in the state’s 2015-16 budget.
House Ways and Means Committee chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, agrees more money should go to roads, adding the House-passed roads plan would have done just that.
“We need more than $300 million (a year) for roads,” White said. “But … we do not need to be using the recurring dollars out of the general fund (budget) to be funding highways.”
Instead, general fund money has to go for other state needs, including education, health care and law enforcement, he said.
‘Biggest bang for the buck’
The specific county projects that would receive the surplus money would be determined by transportation committees in each county.
Richland County Transportation Committee chairman James Brown said the state Transportation Department typically provides his committee with information about the needs of state-owned roads in his county.
The Transportation Department “would consider roads that would be candidates for reconstruction, heavy or light rehabilitation,” said Pete Poore, spokesman for the state agency. The department “would select roads from the list based on criteria, such as future development, significance to the community and the maintenance costs associated with the road.”
Under the current House proposal, the added state money could be spent, for example, to pay for about a fourth of the $29.9 million cost of widening state-owned Hardscrabble Road from Farrow Road to Lake Carolina Boulevard.
Money from Richland County taxpayers that the county has set aside for that project then could be shifted to other locally financed road projects.
In 2012, Richland County said it had $656 million in state and local road needs over the next two decades. To address those needs, county voters passed an added penny-on-the-dollar sales tax.
Last fall, neighboring Lexington County identified $178.4 million in needed transportation projects. However, voters rejected an added penny-on-the-dollar sales tax, in part because critics said the proposal included unnecessary projects, including new parks and buildings.
More counties will need to pass added sales taxes for road repairs if the state does not pass a plan to pay to fix its roads, said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland.
“(That is) the only way the counties will be able to take care of what they need to take care of,” he said.
At the same time, however, thousands of miles of roads in counties across the state have very little traffic and do not need to be a priority for repair, Ballentine said. “We need to make sure that we’re spending the money getting the biggest bang for the buck.”
A priority for next year?
The House proposal requires that state surplus money must be spent on state-owned roads, a requirement that is likely to be debated among lawmakers.
“That’s a little too draconian – a little too restrictive,” said state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who filibustered the last three weeks of the Senate’s session to block a bill that would have increased the state gas tax for road repairs.
Simrill said the House proposal to require counties spend state money on state roads is intended to ensure the money is not diverted. “What we didn’t want were sidewalks or bike trails or beautification components.”
Counties need to be required to put 100 percent of the added money on state roads and bridges because they are the most traveled roads in the state, said Bill Ross, executive director of the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads. “That’s where the problem is primarily.”
Ross said his road repair advocacy group is hopeful a roads plan will pass the Legislature next year. A roads proposal is in a priority spot on the calendar in the Senate, where the House plan died this year.
Ross said a plan to address the state’s long-term road funding needs will require broad-based funding sources, including higher taxes on gas and vehicle sales, use or surplus money and more.
That is the only way the state will get anywhere near the added money that is needed, he said.
“At least we have this new money going to roads,” said Rep. Simrill. “But that is not sustainable. It is not reliable. It is one time only.”
Added the Republican, “The truth of the matter is, when it comes to road funding and the infrastructure debate, we have let this lapse for far too long and ignored it.”
Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.
How much money would your Midlands county get?
The full S.C. House will debate a proposal this week to divide $150 million among the state’s 46 counties based on their population, geographic size and the miles of rural roads each has. A look at how much each Midlands County would get under that plan:
Richland – $7.2 million
Lexington – $5.9 million
Orangeburg – $4.8 million
Sumter – $3.5 million
Kershaw – $3 million
Fairfield – $2.1 million
Saluda – $1.7 million
Calhoun – $1.3 million
Cost of repairing S.C. roads
Where does the money go?
$250,000: Cost to repair a mile of state highway
$500,000-$700,000: Cost of paving a mile of a dirt road, county officials estimate
How much is needed?
$1.5 billion: The shortfall in added money the Transportation Department has estimated it needs each year through 2040 to repair and expand the state’s roads and bridges. Others say the total needed for repairs is far lower – possibly an added $400 million – if the cost of new or expanded roads is excluded and the Transportation Department is managed more effectively.
Plans to raise added money
$427 million a year: The amount a S.C. House-passed roads plan would have raised by increasing the state gas tax by 10 cents a gallon and the cap on the state sales tax on vehicles to $500 from $300
$800 million a year: The amount a Senate Finance Committee-passed roads plan would have raised by increasing the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon, the state sales tax cap on vehicles to $600, and increasing and adding other driving fees