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SC roads agency needs new income sources, structure, audit says

The damage is extensive to Wilson Boulevard/US-21 just past Hardscrabble Road in Columbia. Residents and local business owners are surprised the road has yet to be fixed since being damaged during last year's flood.
The damage is extensive to Wilson Boulevard/US-21 just past Hardscrabble Road in Columbia. Residents and local business owners are surprised the road has yet to be fixed since being damaged during last year's flood. gmelendez@thestate.com

S.C. lawmakers should tie the state’s gas tax to fuel prices or inflation and identify other sources of revenue to pay for road repairs, according to a report released Tuesday.

Compared to other states, South Carolina dedicates the least money to its roads, considering the size of its road system and the traffic carried, the report by the Legislative Audit Council said.

In addition, the structure of the state Transportation Department — governed by an eight-member commission, seven members appointed by legislators, and an agency head, appointed by the governor — “creates confusion” as to who is in charge, the report said.

In response, Transportation Department head Christy Hall again Tuesday urged lawmakers to pass changes to her agency’s structure this year.

“The (Legislative Audit Council) itself noted the confusion over the simple question of who is in charge,” Hall said. “Without that critical issue resolved, it will be nearly impossible to set clear priorities, instill effective accountability and correctly answer the question of where the buck stops for the organization.”

For two years, S.C. lawmakers have grappled with how to raise more money to repair the state’s crumbling roads.

Many Republican lawmakers argue the structure of the Transportation Department needs to be changed, putting the governor in charge, before more money is sent to the agency.

Lawmakers have made it clear the state’s gas tax — the third lowest in the nation — will not be increased this year, an election year, to help pay for road repairs.

The state’s reliance on the fuel tax to pay for repairs is problematic because that tax does not adjust to reflect inflation, according to the audit. In addition, more fuel-efficient cars have led to a drop in fuel consumption, threatening the state’s gas-tax revenue.

The gas tax also hurts low-income consumers most, the audit said.

The state should adjust the gas tax to take into account inflation and find more sources of revenue for roads, the audit said.

Options include a levying surcharge on insurance premiums, putting fees on alternative fuel or electric vehicles, and charging fees based on the miles traveled by a vehicle, the audit said.

The Transportation Department has estimated it needs an added $1.5 billion a year to maintain and expand the state’s transportation system.

However, that estimate “is questionable since it includes a large number of assumptions,” the Audit Committee report said. That estimate is based on information and data from the Transportation Department and Federal Highway Administration as well as state roads agency staff. But there is the possibility of inaccuracies or bias in the numbers, the report said.

The Transportation Department has said it needs an added $1.2 billion a year to bring the state’s roads into excellent condition, excluding expansion.

The S.C. House has proposed spending $415 million on road repairs starting July 1 as part of the state budget, including money spent for repairs after last year’s flooding. The state Senate has passed a plan to spend $400 million on roads.

Gov. Nikki Haley has pushed for more control of the Transportation Department, urging the House to pass the Senate plan. “We have an opportunity to fix this problem — and ultimately our roads — this year, but only if the House concurs with the Senate reform plan,” said Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams, adding, “The governor will continue to press House members to do just that.”

A special House committee will meet Thursday to hear from Audit Council and Transportation Department officials.

Document: Summary of SC Legislative Audit Council’s SC DOT audit

Hover your mouse cursor or tap near the top of the document for full-screen ( ) and other options.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

The condition of S.C. roads

The state’s 40,000 miles of Transportation Department maintained-roads, excluding interstates, deteriorated from 2008 to 2014, the S.C. Legislative Audit Council found.

Primary roads

54 percent in poor condition in 2014, up from 31 percent in 2008

Secondary roads eligible for federal money

46 percent in poor condition in 2014, up from 31 percent in 2008

Secondary roads not eligible for federal money

54 percent in poor condition in 2014, up from 33 percent in 2008

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