Politics & Government

State transportation chief has reservations about Senate road funding plan

State Department of Transportation Chairman John Edwards says he’s not looking a gift horse in the mouth but has strong reservations nonetheless about a Senate budget plan to spend $500 million on roads and bridges.

The plan would use $50 million to leverage about $500 million in bonds from the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank.

Although the state’s transportation needs range as high as an estimated $29 billion, lawmakers this year couldn’t agree on a permanent funding fix. So the Senate adopted the bond plan, while the House passed a plan that would use $60 million from the budget for bridge work and dedicate about $80 million a year in vehicle sales tax revenue for roads.

The two chambers are in final negotiations on the budget. The Senate bonding idea also was inserted into another transportation bill.

Edwards told GreenvilleOnline.com that he doesn’t like the idea that the Senate’s plan depends on borrowing.

“I don’t like to spend somebody else’s money,” he said. “Children and grandchildren will be paying this debt back. Is that the only way we can repair the bridges and roads?”

Edwards said if the Legislature adopts the plan, “The only way I can support it is if the DOT gets to pick the projects under Act 114.”

Act 114 is the transportation project priority system set up by lawmakers in 2007 to try and reduce political influence on the process. Though all road and bridge projects are supposed to be ranked and rated by the system, Infrastructure Bank projects and new construction aren’t included in the rankings.

Edwards, who came on to the DOT board in 2010, also is a member of the Infrastructure Bank board. “I think it’s a duplication in process because DOT can do the same thing the SIB can do,” he said.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms says the Infrastructure Bank can actually borrow more using the same amount of money, which is why the Infrastructure Bank was chosen.

But he said he shares Edwards’ concerns that DOT choose the projects and that they be chosen by Act 114 standards.

“I’m all about following Act 114 and making sure any projects that are picked are done in prioritization so you don’t have legislators funding certain pet projects through what we’re doing,” he said.

The Senate included language to keep the $500 million from being spent on any project approved before this summer.

Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler said that provision is to keep the money from being used on certain existing projects.

“A deal breaker for me is if we can’t have that one sentence,” he said of budget negotiations. “My concern is this will be a vote to send additional money to I-526. It seems to me the Charleston legislators think infrastructure funding is a one-way road leading into the Holy City.”

The extension of I-526 is a $550 million project in Charleston that has attracted environmental opposition as well as criticism of the way the bank board approved the last amount of financing for the extension. That portion of the funding is to come from future revenues.

Peeler has proposed doing away with the Infrastructure Bank, arguing that the board has sent most of its project financing since it was created to a handful of counties, especially Charleston and Horry. Board members have said that is because of the board’s requirements for a local match and that projects be at least $100 million in size.

“We have hours of negotiation before we settle on a plan,” Peeler said of budget negotiations.

He said he shares Edwards’ concerns as to borrowing the money. “(But) we must make the best of a bad situation,” he said.

Peeler said his constituents tell him the state shouldn’t spend additional money if it can’t be spent on a fair and equitable basis around the state. He said he also is concerned with borrowing the money.

“But that is not receiving support from the legislators,” he said, “especially the people who have been taking advantage of the situation with the Infrastructure Bank.”

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister of Greenville said Edwards has a good point in his concerns about borrowing.

“If you have expenses you are incurring every year, you cannot pay those expenses by borrowing money or eventually you will run out of money,” he said.

Sen. Ray Cleary, who chaired a Senate panel that produced a road-funding plan that is awaiting Senate debate next year, said while he understands those opposed to borrowing, doing so while the interest rates are so low to pay for bridge and road repair costs that will only climb with time is a prudent move.

Grooms said he plans to invite Edwards and other DOT commissioners’ input before the conference committee on the separate transportation bill meets.

“I think the question people of South Carolina really need to ask is why haven’t legislators done something in the past to bring this up to standard,” Edwards said of the state’s infrastructure system.