Politics & Government

State chamber CEO: Senate may soon pass roads bill

Vehicles have to maneuver around potholes and rough roads throughout Columbia.
Vehicles have to maneuver around potholes and rough roads throughout Columbia. gmelendez@thestate.com

The chief of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce said Monday the Legislature may be on the brink of passing a much-needed roads bill that includes a gas tax increase.

“We’re hopeful that this year’s the year they’re going to do it,” chamber CEO Ted Pitts told the Columbia Rotary Club at its weekly luncheon. Pitts’ group represents some 18,000 businesses around the state.

“We’re at a situation where the state’s largest asset – our infrastructure – is literally crumbling beneath our tires,” Pitts said. “We’re really at a place where the General Assembly has to do this.”

All eyes are on the State Senate, Pitts said, where he hopes the roads bill – the House version of which includes a 10-cent per gallon tax for road and bridge improvements to be phased in over five years – will come up for a vote this week.

Because Gov. Henry McMaster has already said he will veto the bill, it’s important the 45-member Senate pass the bill with a “supermajority” of two-thirds so the bill will be veto-proof, Pitts said. The 124-member House already passed the bill with a “supermajority.”

“It (the Senate vote) will be close,” Pitts predicted.

The last time South Carolina raised the gas tax was 1987. South Carolinians now pay 16.75 cents a gallon – after Alaska, it is the second-cheapest state gas tax in the nation.

South Carolin’a current gas tax is about “one-tenth per lane-mile” of what North Carolina spends on roads and about “one-sixth” per lane-mile as Georgia, Pitts said. Both Georgia and North Carolina are recognized as having roads in better condition than South Carolina.

“We’re behind other states, and it’s really become a concern for industry as they look to expand in S.C. or come into South Carolina,” Pitts said.

If the 10-cent per gallon tax is fully implemented, drivers will pay a little more than $1 per week more than they do now.

Although conservatives don’t like to spend money to fix roads, it’s actually more conservative to spend money for upkeep to avoid spending even more money when the roads crumble away, Pitts said.

For example, a delayed project last year to resurface a portion of I-85 in the Upstate uncovered major, more expensive problems.

“They took up the top layer, and milled down the asphalt, (and) they realized the base on this road is bad, and (suddenly) they had a reconstruction project – not a resurfacing project.”

Pitts also said South Carolina, which has an unemployment rate of less than 4 percent, will need more workers in the future because its work force is aging.

“Almost half of it are over 50 years old,” Pitts said. “In the next 10-15 years, half our work force is going to retire. You’ve got to replace those.”