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Roads chief urges lawmakers to act on reforms this year

Gov. Nikki Haley talks about the SC House delaying a decision on roads plan until April

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The head of the S.C. Department of Transportation said Wednesday that S.C. lawmakers should pass changes to the agency’s structure before they go home in June.

Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said she is concerned about the possibility of nothing happening to restructure the agency during the current legislative session.

“Essentially, we have a cloud that’s hanging over the agency,” Hall said, adding there is uncertainty among employees about who is in charge and how the agency will operate if changes are made.

Meanwhile Wednesday, House leaders sent a letter to Republican Gov. Nikki Haley outlining their plans to take up a Senate proposal to spend $400 million on road repairs and change the structure of the state’s roads agency.

“The House will act very quickly to advance this (roads) legislation,” House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, wrote in a letter to Haley. The letter was cosigned by Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, and Assistant Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York.

The House leaders also politely asked the governor — who called on voters to pressure legislators Tuesday — to back off.

“We appreciate you respecting our legislative responsibilities by reserving judgment until after the House has been given a necessary amount of time,” the three legislators wrote.

The House leaders told Haley they will not insist on a House-passed road-repair plan, which included the equivalent of a 10-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increases. However, the House leaders laid down a marker for a future road-repair bill, thanking the governor “by recognizing that the Senate bill does not contain a sustainable funding solution. We also appreciate your pledge to work with us to quickly create a long-term sustainable funding model.”

Hall said she is “encouraged that the General Assembly is recognizing the needs for (additional) road and bridge funding.”

However, Haley warned Wednesday that if the House does not agree to the Senate’s roads bill, “I strongly believe this bill will die. It will be on the House that they are the ones that killed it.”

Simrill said the House wants Transportation Department reform to happen this year. A special House panel will weigh the Senate plan, which gives the governor the ability to appoint Transportation Department Commission members.

Critics have said that the current setup allows Transportation Department commissioners, now appointed by legislators, to interfere with the agency’s day-to-day operations.

Haley has said commissioners now are driven by “short-sighted regionalism and political horse trading.”

The commission should set statewide policy, Hall said, adding roads engineers should be empowered to address local issues as they arise, Hall said. The agency has a strong, dedicated workforce, capable of delivering results, Hall said.

“It’s not my job to tell the legislators how to fix the problem or how to do the specifics on governance or funding,” Hall said. But, she added, agency employees “desperately need the issue of governance resolved.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

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