THE PROBLEM with all of the proposals to tackle South Carolina’s huge and growing highway maintenance backlog isn’t that they’re a mere drop in the bucket — although they are. The problem is that they’re a hole in the dike.
Until now, we’ve always called on the people who use roads to pay for them, primarily through the gas tax. We’ve reserved general tax revenue for more general needs, and indeed, the sales tax was instituted, and on several occasions raised, specifically to pay for public schools. But with the business community fixated on making a dent in our backlog, the Legislature is fixated on making a dent in our backlog, and the House and the Senate Finance Committee want to divert sales tax revenue to roads, even though we don’t have a lot of spare change lying around. The Senate plan also raises some fees, but we all know what’s going to happen to that plan when it hits the House — if it even makes it out of the Senate.
The diversions are small, but once we’ve broken the barrier and started using general-fund revenue to pay for roads, the only questions are how soon and how rapidly they will grow. The backlog is so formidable — from $500 million to $1.5 billion per year for the next decade, or two — that it’s not inconceivable that road spending could crowd out public education, which already is being crowded out by medical care, at the top of our general expenditures.
But if we simply divert money from other unmet needs, we’re just playing a catch-up game that we’ll never win. While insufficient funding is one reason we have such lousy roads and dangerous bridges, it’s not the only reason. And so more money can’t be our only solution.
• The state highway system is too big. We don’t have the nation’s fourth-largest highway system because we have so much territory to traverse. We have it because state government is responsible for 62 percent of our roads; the national average is 19 percent.
The Greenville News recently reported that the state system includes “parking lots, driveways, cemetery streets and avenues in neighborhoods.” Folks in Columbia crashed into this problem earlier this year when the Transportation Department ignored city policy and chopped down a grand tree in an in-town neighborhood just two miles from the State House, because the sidewalk it was disturbing belongs not to the city or even the county, but the state.
The difference between South Carolina and the rest of the country is that in South Carolina, the Legislature considers itself the font of all wisdom and thus has reserved a role for itself as the source of all power, only grudgingly giving bits of responsibility to local governments, which elsewhere build and maintain roads and have options to pay for them.
We keep building new roads when we can’t maintain the ones we have, because the people who spend our limited road dollars have lousy judgment.
Two entities spend road funds. The Infrastructure Bank controls about 10 percent of state highway funds and is controlled by two legislators: House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Senate President Pro Tem John Courson. Seriously. And until Glenn McConnell resigned last year as president pro tem to become lieutenant governor, both of the appointers were from Charleston County, which helps to explain why the bank voted last year to commit bonding capacity that it won’t even have for a decade to a Charleston County project that the county doesn’t want, and that didn’t even make the state’s transportation priority list. Again: Seriously. We can’t maintain the roads we have, and a bunch of political appointees is trying to force a $558 million road project on a community that doesn’t want it.
Senate GOP Leader Harvey Peeler and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen. Vincent Sheheen have proposed folding the Infrastructure Bank into the state Transportation Department. That would eliminate one parochial board that has exercised bad judgment with our limited resources, and give its duties to … another parochial board that has exercised bad judgment with our limited resources.
And our road-building process is so corrupted that this would be progress, if only because it would break the two-legislator stranglehold on road funding. So it’s a first step.
The next step is to inject some objective measures into road decisions — like the Legislature pretended to do the last time it overhauled the Transportation Commission. Although the law requires the commission to use objective criteria to rank road projects, it allows the commission to ignore those rankings. As it did in 2011, voting to max out our highway bonding capacity for a decade on a $344 million bond package to build five projects, only one of which scored well and one of which — a $105 million interchange to nowhere — hadn’t even been graded. Last year, the commission finally bowed to public pressure and abandoned the package.
But there’s nothing to stop it from trying again to commit money it doesn’t have — as the Infrastructure Bank already did. And nothing to prevent it from ignoring the objective rankings of road projects, as the Infrastructure Bank routinely does.
Using objective criteria to decide what to build and repair needs to be mandatory, not optional. That reform, along with a fix-it-first mandate and the abolition of the Infrastructure Bank, needs to be a precondition for even one penny of additional highway funding. Regardless of where that penny comes from.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803)771-8571.