THERE’S A SMALL but vocal minority that insists that our roads problem would go away with a little reform. In their telling, we don’t need any more money to resurface our pockmarked highways and repair our dilapidated bridges and add lanes to break through mounting congestion; all we need to do is spend the money better — and that will happen if we change how road-spending decisions are made.
It’s true that our two highway commissions have made lousy decisions about what to repair and not repair, expand and not expand, build and not build.
But even if they had made all the right decisions, and even if the Transportation Department had administered road projects in the most efficient way possible, we still would have a road system that’s dismantling our cars and destroying our sanity and starting to scare off business prospects.
That’s because when you have the fourth-lowest gas tax in the nation and the fourth-largest state road system in the nation — not the fourth-largest per capita, but the fourth-highest number of miles — you’re going to dig yourself deeper into the hole every year. Because by and large, it takes more money to maintain more miles of roads than other states have — not less.
From the other side of the political spectrum — the side that wants to throw every dollar we possibly can at the Transportation Department and not worry about boondoggles and pork projects — comes the argument that it’s foolish to try to take the politics out of road building, because road building is inherently political. The only question is whose politics prevail.
These folks also argue that the Transportation Commission and the State Infrastructure Bank board are doing a fine job of deciding what projects to complete, that the Transportation Department is doing a fine job of completing those projects and that we ought to take the agency’s $1.5 billion-per-year price tag seriously, rather than the $600 million or so figure that doesn’t include the boondoggles.
This first claim is absolutely true. The problem is that no one is arguing otherwise. No one believes that there’s any way we can remove politics from road decisions.
The second claim — well, it’s hard to take that seriously in the face of the Transportation Commission’s effort to max out its bonding capacity on a package of road projects that weren’t on the state’s priority list, including a $105 million interchange for a new interstate that probably won’t ever get built. Or the Infrastructure Bank’s decision to max out its bonding capacity and then commit another $150 million in future bonding capacity on a controversial highway that wasn’t on the state’s priority list but that was in Charleston County. Charleston County, you see, was home to the two legislators who at the time appointed the majority of the board’s members and was the recipient, along with just one other county, of a full 56 percent of the bank’s funding over its first 15 years.
Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone who will make that “great job, no reforms needed” claim except for current members of our two vote-trading highway commissions and legislators who either benefit or believe they can benefit from the status quo.
The question that we need to address — that the House went a little way toward addressing in its road-repair legislation and that the Senate desperately needs to tackle, even though it seems to have no appetite for it, and even though some senators are warning they won’t debate a roads bill at all — is how we can make sure we spend our limited resources the best way possible.
What anybody who has watched government (or any other organization) will tell you is that when 170 people are in charge, no one is in charge, because every one of them can point a finger to the other 169. And that’s how our Transportation Department is governed. Worse, actually: The governor appoints one commissioner, and the legislators from each of the state’s seven congressional districts elect one each; they can’t remove that member until his term is up. So when things go bad, not only can an individual legislator blame the commissioners over whom he has no control; he can say he has no control over his own commissioner.
What anybody who watches government will tell you is that when you give an inordinate amount of power to two legislators, it’ll be pure luck if those two legislators look out for the best interests of the entire state. That’s how the Infrastructure Bank is governed: The governor appoints three members, and the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore select two each. And the fact is that Sen. Hugh Leatherman has to answer to only one out of every 46 South Carolinians, and Rep. Jay Lucas has to answer to only one out of every 124 South Carolinians.
What anybody who watches government can tell you is that when the governor can hire and fire the person who runs the agency, there is no question who to blame when the agency makes a mess or doesn’t do what the voters want it to do. We might not always be willing to punish governors when their agency gives away our Social Security numbers, or doesn’t do enough to protect children from their parents, but that’s a choice that we make.
It’s a choice that we don’t even have when the Legislature controls an agency; it’s a choice that the overwhelming majority of us don’t have when two legislators control an agency.
How little reform?
The House bill lets the governor appoint all eight members of the Transportation Commission. It would be more efficient to abolish the commission and let her appoint the secretary, but the bill does let the governor remove the commissioners at will, so she would have the ability to control the agency. (She appoints the secretary now, but the Legislature’s commission can block pretty much anything the secretary wants to do.)
The House bill would expand the Infrastructure Bank board from seven to 13, with seven members appointed by the governor and three each by the speaker and the president pro tempore. That’s a big improvement, but it still gives two legislators way too much say over billions of dollars in road spending.
That wouldn’t be a big deal if the Legislature would adopt a fix-it-first requirement and eliminate the gaping loophole in what is supposed to ensure that we build our most important highway projects first. But the House bill does neither.
It pretends to delay new construction projects until 2020, but it exempts any project that can get a preliminary-engineering foot under the door by the end of this year — and any interstate project that qualifies for federal funding. Which means, for instance, that there would be nothing to stop the commission from reviving the I-73 bridge-to-nowhere boondoggle. Or the whole interstate to nowhere. And it does nothing to close the loophole in what is billed as a requirement that projects be ranked on the basis of a very smart list of objective criteria. The loophole allows those criteria to be diluted by any other criteria the horse-trading commissioners can dream up.
It would be great for the Senate to fix those two problems. And who knows? Maybe it can.
But the real question might be, what happens if it doesn’t fix those problems — and if it removes what little reform we have?
No, we can’t solve our road problems through governmental reform alone. But can we afford to write a half-a-billion-dollar-a-year check to a gang with such a bad track record?
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at email@example.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.