Gov. Nikki Haley signed a $4 billion road-and-bridge spending plan Thursday that includes repairing Malfunction Junction in Richland and Lexington counties.
But Haley said finding a long-term road-repair solution again will be the No. 1 priority when lawmakers return to Columbia for the 2017 legislative session. This year’s spending proposal is “not of the magnitude or sustainability” to address the long-term needs of the state’s highway system, she said.
Haley also said reforms to the state Transportation Department’s structure, which are part of the new law, are inadequate.
After a gas-tax hike proposal died in the Senate earlier this year, lawmakers approved the stopgap spending plan, including money to repair Malfunction Junction, the state’s No. 1 roads priority since 2008.
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Easing congestion on the area’s roadways will grow jobs and the economy, said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, who represents a portion of Malfunction Junction, where up to 133,600 vehicles travel every day. It also will increase safety – reducing crashes and saving lives, Smith said.
Untangling the 14 miles of interstate, 12 interchanges and 19 bridges of Malfunction Junction could cost up to $1.5 billion, according to preliminary estimates by the Transportation Department. The state already has set aside nearly $93 million for the project.
The roads and bridges of Malfunction Junction were built during the 1960s. Improvements were made during the 1970s and 1980s as the area grew.
Now, thousands more commuters – from Chapin, Dutch Fork, Irmo, Lexington, St. Andrews and the north shore of Lake Murray – use Malfunction Junction daily to travel to downtown Columbia.
State Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, who also represents a part of Malfunction Junction, said travelers commuting in the area have to double the time that it should take to get to and from work. “It’s just a real mess.”
However, Quinn, a Haley ally, said he had mixed emotions about the road-repair bill.
“I’m very excited that the No. 1 priority … is funded and is slated to be fixed finally. But I’m also very concerned that we didn’t get the reform we wanted.”
‘Our business is unfinished’
The plan also includes replacing nearly 400 bridges across the state and giving the governor more control over the state Transportation Department.
The changes to the structure of the Transportation Department emerged last week after S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas called on the Senate and Haley to pass the then-stalled proposal.
However, in her letter to lawmakers, Haley said a long-term road-repair solution, including more Transportation Department reforms, still is needed.
“I am confident that, once again, roads will be at the top of our agenda” in 2017, Haley wrote. “It has to be. Our business is unfinished.”
Most legislators say a long-term road-repair solution will require increasing the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax, the third lowest in the nation, to pay for repairs.
Lucas, R-Darlington, whose House passed a gas-tax increase last year to pay for road repairs by a 87-20 vote, said his chamber again would support a long-term solution.
“(W)e stand by our commitment to finding a long-term, sustainable funding stream to permanently fix our roads,” Lucas said.
Bill Ross, executive director of the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads, also said a long-term road spending plan “must be adopted in order to ensure our roads and bridges will meet the needs of generations to come.”
He added his organization, which includes engineering firms and construction companies, will continue to advocate for the state’s road-repair needs.
The S.C. Chamber of Commerce also applauded Haley for signing the plan.
“(T)his bill is far from perfect and falls woefully short of a sustainable, long-term solution to a problem that has plagued our state for too long,” said chamber president Ted Pitts, a former Haley chief of staff.
The chamber will continue to make infrastructure a top priority, and work with Haley and lawmakers on a long-term fix, he said.
‘Far less than the people of South Carolina ... deserve’
Haley expressed disappointment in the new law’s restructuring of the commission that oversees the Transportation Department.
“In the waning hours of a two-year legislative session, a deal was cut, out of the public eye, and a new plan appeared in the Senate,” Haley wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “It had not been studied. It had not been vetted. ...
“So let us all be honest about what we accomplished in this bill: incremental and incomplete reform or, put a different way, far less than the people of South Carolina both expect and deserve from us.”
While the law allows Haley to appoint Transportation Department commissioners, Haley said the law’s confirmation-and-removal process for commissioners is “deeply flawed.”
The law says that:
▪ Eight Transportation Department commissioners will be appointed by the governor, one from each congressional district and one at large
▪ Those appointments will be approved or rejected by the legislative delegations from the affected congressional district
▪ The appointments then will be screened by the Joint Transportation Review Committee
▪ The appointments then will be confirmed by the state Senate
▪ The Transportation Department’s secretary will be selected by the commission with the advice and consent of the Senate
Critics say the proposal is flawed because the governor cannot remove Transportation commissioners without approval from legislators from the affected congressional district.
Also, if legislators from a congressional district do not approve a commissioner’s appointment within 45 days, it is rejected. That allows lawmakers to reject a commissioner without publicly voting, critics say.