There’s no detour around this issue: South Carolina roads and bridges need repair. However, I strongly disagree that the only way to fix our roads is to raid your wallet.
The billions of dollars raised by the penny tax over several decades have not fixed education. Likewise, another $600 million taken out of your wallet every year, one dime at a time (per the House legislation), will not fix our roads. Instead, we’ll all be standing here 10 or 20 years from now asking the same sort of questions that we ask of K-12 education: Where did all our money go, and why are roads still broken?
I oppose taking the fruits of your labor in the name of fixing our roads, as if your hard-earned money is pixie dust that will magically make everything better. Hardworking taxpayers should not have to be punished for the failure of government to use your money wisely in the first place.
We often hear that a state agency cannot operate in 2017 on a 1987 budget (the last time politicians successfully raided your wallet at the gas pump). But the Department of Transportation is not really operating on the same basis as it was in 1987, or even just a few years ago.
The state budget contained approximately $1.3 billion for our roads and bridges in fiscal year 2005, when I entered the Senate. The state budget contained $2.2 billion for our infrastructure in the last fiscal year. We’re budgeting almost 70 percent more on our roads and bridges now than in 2005. Yet we’re told by politicians that this isn’t enough.
The politicians tell us that you must pay more because more people live here. But the population has only grown by 15 percent since 2005. Our 70 percent spending growth should have accommodated a 15 percent population growth. Yet the politicians still say it is not enough.
Dumping more money into a broken system is not the solution to our roads problem. The answer lies in how we spend the money, and I support these few, simple changes to our infrastructure spending and governance policies.
We have to remove politics from infrastructure spending, and that means eliminating the politically appointed, and therefore politically motivated, Transportation Commission in favor of a Cabinet agency headed by a gubernatorial appointee.
One person, elected statewide, would be accountable for our roads and bridges. Taxpayers could decide every four years if that person is doing the job and make a change if they so choose.
We must transfer local roads to local governments, with the requisite funding, and allow local taxpayers to make local decisions through their locally elected officials.
Filling potholes should come before cutting ribbons. We must prioritize, in statute, maintenance and repair over new construction. The state spends far more on new construction than on fixing the existing roads and bridges.
We must abolish the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank. It was created to fund the needed Ravenel Bridge in Charleston. But since then, it has become a piggy bank for politically popular projects that further seep money away from maintenance and repair — and raise our debt. It must go away.
I believe that the adoption of these reforms will make a huge difference in the condition of our roads and bridges. Simply taking more money out of your wallet, without changing anything about the business as usual, won’t help us unclog the drain in Columbia.
Lt. Gov. Bryant served in the Senate from 2005 to 2017; contact him at email@example.com.