I-26 delay, corruption case show SC roads agency needs review, senator says

S.C. Department of Transportation building
S.C. Department of Transportation building

The Interstate 26 widening and re-paving project in Lexington and Calhoun counties is scheduled to be completed by September, more than a year behind schedule.

The new deadline comes after a new paving contractor was brought on to the project, state roads officials said Friday.

The $75 million project was to be completed by July 2015, a deadline later extended until Nov. 24, 2015, according to the S.C. Transportation Department.

The state roads agency said it has withheld $2.8 million in payments from the contractor for missing its deadline – $10,000 a day for every day past the scheduled completion date.

A state senator said Friday the delay in the I-26 project and an alleged public corruption kickback scheme by former Transportation Department employees shows the roads agency should be examined.

This spring, Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, sponsored and helped pass a budget proposal directing that a firm, specializing in efficiency, be brought in to study the Transportation department.

Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said Friday she supports bringing in an outside organization to identify ways to improve the roads agency’s operations, and identify best practices and lessons that can be learned from other state road agencies.

Hall also repeated the Transportation Department has “zero tolerance for improper and illegal behavior at the agency.”

Earlier this week, three former Transportation Department employees and the neighbor of one of those workers were charged with conducting a six-year scheme to bilk taxpayers out of more than $400,000.

Setzler’s study proposal, part of the state’s 2016-17 budget, does not direct when the Transportation Department review should be completed or the study’s cost.

Setzler said Friday he did not specify a time frame because it is important the study be done properly.

However, in a July 6 letter to state Inspector General Patrick Maley and Hall, Setzler outlined his vision for the study.

“A consulting firm should be selected that specializes in organizational structure, organizational efficiency and structuring an entity or ‘structuring a purpose’ in a way that it can be best managed for operational effectiveness,” Setzler wrote.

He also asked the study examine the use of state money sent to local governments to pay for road repairs, including money sent to county transportation committees. Most of those local committees are appointed by local legislative delegations.

In a letter responding to Setzler, Maley applauded the idea of a review of the Transportation Department to improve its effectiveness and efficiency.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

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