WHEN THEN-Gov. David Beasley proposed creating the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank back in 1997, he pitched it as a way to pay for the state’s biggest and most urgent highway needs without raising taxes. In his State of the State address, he even named the five projects he wanted the bank to fund: a $450 million Conway Bypass to alleviate Grand Strand traffic snarls, a $400 million Cooper River bridge between Charleston and Mount Pleasant, an $83 million upgrade of S.C. 170 in Beaufort County, a $70 million extension of the Bobby Jones Expressway in Aiken County, and $190 million for the Southern Connector in Greenville.
Although lawmakers tweaked Mr. Beasley’s proposal (this was back when governors offered fully detailed legislation rather than simply ideas), they never took their eyes off of that construction list. Indeed, board members suggested shutting down the bank once it had funded all of them.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, the bank’s mission expanded.
It was barely operational before Midlands lawmakers elbowed their way up to the table, demanding $110 million to widen S.C. 6 across the Lake Murray dam and reinforce the dam. As glad as we all were in October that the dam had been reinforced, that would have happened with or without Infrastructure Bank funding. And that lobbying effort interjected parochialism into the equation and expanded the bank’s focus beyond the state’s universally accepted economic-development priorities.
Today, with more than 100 projects funded in 29 counties, the bank often looks like the funder of first resort for any community that’s willing to chip in part of the cost.
Some, and I am among them, believe that after those agreed-upon priorities got taken care of, the board members replaced “state’s most important projects” with “projects that are most important to the two legislators who appoint us.”
But let’s take the word of the board, which defends itself against charges of playing to the politics of its patrons by arguing that it’s actually just … reactionary. As if that’s supposed to make us feel better about a board that has spent $3.6 billion of our tax money.
When he testified before the Senate Finance Committee last month, Chairman Vince Graham was asked why the bank agreed to spend $250 million to widen a two-lane highway in Senate President Pro Tem and Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman’s district that carries 5,000 cars a day instead of a section of I-85 in the Upstate that carries 76,000. “We have reacted to an application,” he said. Florence County, he explained, “provided a match through a 1-cent sales tax that was approved by the citizens of that county,” so the application was approved.
At this point, The Greenville News’ Tim Smith reports, Sen. Ray Cleary rebuked his fellow senators for criticizing the decision, arguing that the county’s taxpayers had a right to decide what got paved since they voted to raise their taxes to pay a (very small) portion of the cost. But Mr. Graham went on to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t a great idea for the board to simply consider whatever applications it receives, without regard to the state’s needs. “My personal view is if we are going to be helping to facilitate hundreds of millions of dollars of funding of infrastructure,” he said, “there ought to be some strategy involved.”
Let that sink in a moment. I’ve let it sink in for a few weeks now, and I still don’t know whether to cheer or to weep. It’s fabulous that the chairman recognizes that the Infrastructure Bank needs to focus on the state’s needs, rather than just tossing money out willy-nilly.
It’s mind-boggling to realize that the bank has deliberately avoided doing that for most of its 19-year history.
This is not, at least not entirely, the fault of the bank board. When legislators passed a law in 2007 that looked like it required the Transportation Department to set its funding priorities based on objective criteria (the law doesn’t actually require that, but a lot of people still insist that it does), they specifically excluded the Infrastructure Bank from that requirement. You don’t have to stretch far from that decision to conclude that legislators wanted the bank to ignore the state’s priorities.
Truth be told, the problem isn’t that the Infrastructure Bank hasn’t been setting priorities; the problem is that the Infrastructure Bank has the authority to set priorities. There should be one agency that determines what road projects get funded, and that should be the Transportation Department; the Infrastructure Bank should act solely to facilitate the funding of those priorities.
That’s a difficult thing to say, because our Transportation Department is controlled by a Transportation Commission that has the judgment of a meth addict going through withdrawal. It’s easy to see the nearly random approach of the Infrastructure Bank as superior to the horse-trading parochialism of the commission.
But the way to fix that problem isn’t to have two priority-setting entities. It’s to let the governor control the commission and the priority list, as Senate Republicans propose to do, so that there is some hope of having a statewide focus.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.