The drumbeat for a gas tax hike is deafening. This level of consensus should send chills down the spines of concerned taxpayers, especially when the rationale for the tax hike is both specious and deceptive.
No one can dispute the poor condition of our road system. But the proposition that things will improve by imposing one of the largest tax increases in state history is demonstrably wrong. Let’s count the reasons.
To begin with, the S.C. Department of Transportation has wildly inflated its financial needs. When asked to calculate the transportation funding “backlog,” the department delivered the figure of $1.5 billion a year over 30 years, for a total of $42 billion. Too few have bothered to question publicly what, actually, it includes.
The number includes, as it turns out, just about everything. To reach $42 billion, the Transportation Department threw in every boondoggle project in every county in the state, including, but not limited to, the $2.4 billion Interstate 73 project from Rockingham to Conway, the $600 million extension of I-526 to rural Johns Island, and the four-laning of S.C. 51 from Florence to Pamplico (more about this shortly). The project list is, simply, the mother of all slush funds.
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Beyond this, for the past quarter century the Transportation Department and its unruly twin, the S.C. State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, have failed to spend the considerable resources they already receive on projects that address true state needs. Instead, we’ve gotten bridges to nowhere and miles of massacred trees in interstate mediums. The reason for this is politics.
Earlier this month, the House debated a series of amendments that would curb these abuses. Representatives then overwhelmingly rejected every single one. Notably, the biggest loser — by a margin of more than 2-1 — was an amendment by Rep. Ralph Norman requiring the Infrastructure Bank to fund projects the Transportation Department as identified as state priorities.
Instead, the bill includes language that can best be described as misleading. It directs the bank to apply the ranking process, but only to those projects which have been submitted to it. These represent a tiny fraction of the proposals for new construction, and none of the repair and maintenance projects that are so vitally needed. Practically, this ranking requirement changes absolutely nothing. The only amendment that passed was one to add $25 million to a pot of money available for rural areas; that funding would be exempt from any ranking standards.
To put this is simple terms, the House voted to raise taxes by more than half a billion dollars, but refused to provide even the most modest assurance that the funds would be used effectively.
It’s worth looking under the hood to see how the funding system really works. Consider the proposed $150 project to four lane S.C. 51 from Florence to Pamplico.
Most of S.C. 51 is now operating at what transportation engineers call “Level of Service A.” By 2030, even with no widening, the Transportation Department predicts it will still operate at Level of Service A. In lay terms, Level of Service A means that a dog can take a 15-minute nap on the center line in complete safety.
Yet the Infrastructure Bank is delighted to squander more than $100 million to turn a lightly traveled rural byway into a virtual interstate. The reason, again, is simple. The bank funds what its members choose to fund. One member is Florence Sen. Hugh Leatherman, who was appointed to the board by then-Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell. When Sen. Leatherman assumed the position of president pro tem, he gained the authority to appoint two board members. One of his appointments was himself.
The story of S.C. 51 is the story of S.C. transportation spending: Politics has diverted scarce funds from true needs to political boondoggles. The House votes demonstrate that the Legislature will fight to keep things that way. Anyone who believes that injecting another half a billion tax dollars into the current system will produce a different outcome has simply not been paying attention.
Mr. Beach is executive director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League; contact him at DanaBeach@scccl.org.