The catastrophic rainstorms left a trail of destruction in 16 counties across South Carolina. More than 130 bridges were closed, with many sustaining severe or permanent damage; many remained impassable into the second weekend. More than 240 rural roads were inundated and closed for days. We still do not know how to put a price tag on the damage.
What we do know is that due to decades of inattention and inadequate maintenance, our roads and bridges were not ready for the 21st Century. Repairing our transportation network will be staggeringly expensive. Upgrading it will be beyond staggering.
Many people, and perhaps a majority of our elected leaders, believe that paying higher gas taxes will automatically result in better roads. But decades of evidence suggest otherwise. Despite billions of dollars allocated for transportation, South Carolina has fallen progressively behind in maintaining and upgrading our highway system.
The reason is the existence of a little-known but lavishly funded transportation agency — the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank. For decades, the Infrastructure Bank has squandered tax dollars on political boondoggles, systematically starving the rest of the state of funding, and diverting badly needed investment in maintenance and repair.
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A few examples illustrate this point. In 2007, the Infrastructure Bank directed $420 million for eight miles of new roads and bridges to rural John’s Island (I-526). This project was to be built entirely with state funding, without federal assistance. Meanwhile, more than 1,800 bridges were left in disrepair.
Likewise, the bank allocated $340 million to several projects in Florence County. The largest expenditure, at $151 million, entails four-laning S.C. 51 — a road that has almost no cars on it, much less traffic congestion.
The S.C. Department of Transportation is not without its faults, but the abuses of tax dollars pale in comparison to those of the Infrastructure Bank — the shadow DOT.
The bank adheres to no standards of project selection except the whims of its members and the powerful politicians who appoint them. The majority of the board (four out of seven) are chosen by speaker of the House, formerly Bobby Harrell and now Jay Lucas, and the Senate President pro tempore, now Hugh Leatherman.
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Not coincidentally, the I-526 project is in former Speaker Harrell’s district. And in 2013, before he was president pro tempore but while he was serving as a member of the Infrastructure Bank board (and Senate Finance Committee Chairman), Sen. Leatherman directed an additional $90 million in bank funds to a package of projects in Florence County — including the S.C. 51 boondoggle. When individuals have complete discretion to choose where to spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars, it should be no surprise that boondoggles take precedence over maintenance and repair.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There is currently more than $400 million sitting unused in the Infrastructure Bank. This year alone, the agency anticipates $255 million in revenue. This money could be applied to routine road repairs, intersection upgrades, maintenance and bridge replacements — or to match Federal Highway Administration emergency dollars that will be spent on storm-damaged roads and bridges. The Infrastructure Bank isn’t planning for anything of the sort, and it won’t — unless the public insists on it.
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Before we consider placing the burden of higher taxes on the residents of this state, we should demand that existing Infrastructure Bank funds promised to boondoggle projects be deployed instead to repair roads and bridges. Let’s guarantee that this money is distributed right now in a way that makes sense, at a time when it has never been more important.
The fast and easy way to ensure that our dollars are spent on projects that will rebuild our communities is to require the Infrastructure Bank to fund repairs to existing infrastructure before building new roads. Further, we should make the bank a part of Transportation Department, which would direct the funds to state priorities.
Let me not understate the challenge before us. Giving the Transportation Department the powers of the Infrastructure Bank robs political leaders of their influence over road funding decisions. These political figures have spent the past two years attempting to convince us that we should pay higher gas taxes to bring our deficient road system up to modern standards. That is a role that the Infrastructure Bank could play.
The Infrastructure Bank can help now by properly deploying money — if we have the political will to demand it.
Ms. Jones-Turansky is chief conservation officer for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.