Opinion Extra

House roads bill guarantees reform, responsible funding

AP

South Carolina is the greatest place to live in America. Our citizens enjoy low taxes, healthy job competition and a high quality of life. But there is one critical-needs issue that threatens the economic and overall future of our state: the condition of our dangerous and crumbling infrastructure.

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The Palmetto State’s roads are the deadliest in the nation, with nearly 1,000 fatalities in 2016 alone. In addition, we have the fourth largest state-maintained road system in the country and the lowest dedicated revenue per mile of roadway. We spend 44 percent less per mile than the average funding levels of our border states and 66 percent less than the national average.

In November 2014, under the leadership of House Speaker Jay Lucas, a group of my colleagues and I assembled a select ad-hoc committee to find the best possible solution for permanent road and bridge repair. We intended to review the S.C. Department of Transportation and propose reforms that improved its transparency and accountability.

At the time, I did not believe we would need to levy any new taxes on our citizens to fix our roads. However, I have concluded that adequate infrastructure repair is impossible without a dramatic increase in funds to the agency.

Last session, politics defeated sound policy in the roads bill debate. It took the Senate more than a year to debate our bill due to fierce opposition from a number of political influences. At the end of session, the General Assembly passed a roads bill that appropriated more general-fund money to high-priority road projects, bonded revenue to fix our bridges and began instituting Transportation Department reforms.

This year, we must complete the task of reform and institute a dedicated funding solution to alleviate our safety crisis and continue our tradition of economic development opportunities. The S.C. Infrastructure and Economic Development Act does that.

H.3516 places the Transportation Department under the direct supervision of the governor, which removes a problematic appointment process and significantly increases accountability.

The bill makes spending completely transparent by depositing all new funds generated from an increase in the motor-fuel user fee into a new infrastructure maintenance trust fund, where it can be used for infrastructure only. This will prevent pet roadway projects and bridges to nowhere.

The Legislature has dedicated significant general state funds to our infrastructure needs over the past few years, but we cannot continue to ask S.C. taxpayers to pay for road repair alone.

Out-of-state motorists use our roads. They should help shoulder the burden for the damage they cause, and under our bill, they would cover a full 30 percent of user fee increases. In addition, people who move here from other states with their vehicles would pay a fee for driving those vehicles on our roads, just as in-state residents already do.

Lastly, the House bill increases the motor-fuel user fee by 2 cents a year over the next five years. The gradual phase-in relieves taxpayers of a one-time spike in fuel costs and allows fuel markets time to adjust accordingly.

In 1987, realizing infrastructure was the key to economic development, conservative Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell supported increasing the motor-fuel user fee for our roads to 16.75 cents per gallon. That is the last time the rate has been adjusted.

Without a sustainable and reliable funding source, our infrastructure will further deteriorate to a state beyond repair. Increasing taxes should never be the first option, and it’s not in this case. But South Carolina cannot afford to waste any more time delaying a real solution to this issue.

Now is the time to address our roads in a responsible fashion. An increase to the user fee is the only way we can permanently fix our roads and the best option we can no longer ignore.

Rock Hill Rep. Simrill, the House Republican leader, is the primary sponsor of the House road-funding bill; contact him at GarySimrill@schouse.gov.

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