Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: How the SC Transportation Commission is working to kill gas tax increase

The SC Transportation Commission is more interested in building new interstates that don’t leave the state than repairing the roads we already have.
The SC Transportation Commission is more interested in building new interstates that don’t leave the state than repairing the roads we already have. gmelendez@thestate.com

THE MEMBERS of the Senate Crazy Caucus must still be giving thanks for the early Christmas present.

All last year, one of their top tactics for torpedoing a gas tax increase to pay for our pockmarked highways and deteriorating bridges was reminding people of the incomprehensibly bad judgment of the parochial horse-traders who would get to divvy up that money. To keep front of mind the fact that the Transportation Department’s claim that we need an additional $1.5 billion a year to repair, maintain and expand our highways is inflated with that “expand” part, which includes at least one spectacular boondoggle.

And then, out of the blue, the Transportation Commission does those senators’ job better than they could have dreamed, voting just a month out from the next legislative session to revive efforts to build a brand-new interstate that will take people from Myrtle Beach to, oh, who knows? Maybe I-95. There it will stop, because North Carolina has only managed to build 92 miles of that interstate — I-73 — in the state’s midsection, and Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia have decided it’s not worth the money.

Transportation commission approves step toward Interstate 73

The Senate’s no-compromise libertarians are absolutely right when they argue that we don’t need to build new roads. We need to fix the ones we have, and expand them where capacity is a problem.

They are absolutely right when they insist that we need to get rid of the Transportation Commission — whose members are appointed not by the governor or even the entire Legislature but by small groups of legislators, and cannot be removed for the simple sin of being awful stewards of the public purse — and put the governor in charge of the agency. And the commission’s latest display of atrocious judgment does bolster that argument.

Where they are wrong — spectacularly wrong — is in saying we need to pay for road repairs by stealing the money that is intended for educating children and protecting them from abusive parents and patrolling our highways and investigating crimes and locking away dangerous criminals and enforcing restaurant-sanitation laws and performing all of those other duties that maintain a civilized society.

That is why it’s even worse than normal for the Transportation Commission to be acting out again.

Scoppe: Money and reform are both essential to fix SC road problems

The commission, by the way, is right when it says we can’t keep patching the patches in our potholes, and we can’t make any progress against our backlog of deficient bridges and under-maintained and overcrowded highways with less than half the buying power we had in 1987, when the gas tax last was increased. And to its credit, it does acknowledge that it will take only $1 billion a year for the next 40 to repair, preserve and modernize the existing roads system — which begs the question of why we we would even consider the $1.5 billion per year price tag.

It is wrong to think I-73 should be a priority.

The cost of constructing I-73 in South Carolina is projected at $2.4 billion, with $1 billion of that covering the section from I-95 to Myrtle Beach. About $46.5 million in federal and state money is now set aside to pay for the interstate. That’s about 2 percent of the total cost.

It is also very nearly the amount the Transportation Department wants the Legislature to provide — $55 million — to bring 32 flood-ravaged bridges up to standard rather than simply repairing them to their substandard pre-flood condition.

Improving 32 flood-damaged bridges would cost $55 million

The Transportation Commission had put I-73 on a back burner after it so thoroughly discredited itself back 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 on the state’s objective criteria and one of which — a $105 million interchange to nowhere for I-73 — hadn’t even been rated.

Beyond that, the proposed route required filling 272 acres of wetlands and nearly a mile of streams; environmentalists wisely recommended upgrading an existing highway that runs parallel to the proposed route instead.

Last month, the commission updated its plan by offering to preserve Gunter’s Island in Horry County in return for destroying all those wetlands. That’s nice. But there were plenty of reasons to object to this project regardless of environmental concerns. About 2.4 billion reasons, in fact.

Transportation commissioner Mike Wooten says the debate over I-73 should be entirely separate from the debate over a gas tax increase, because he has no plans to use any new gas tax money — or any other Transportation Department funds — to pay for I-73.

Let’s pretend we believe him. Let’s pretend we don’t believe that — given the pie-in-the-sky ideas he has for funding — the commission is setting us up for a bait-and-switch, getting the project just far enough along to be tantalizing and then taking over the funding.

We’re still left with this inescapable problem: Absent the governmental reforms that Senate leaders are determined to defeat, the new tax money would go to the gang that can’t budget straight — the gang that’s so myopic that it would pull a stunt like this in the middle of the gas tax debate.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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