Cindi Ross Scoppe

SC DOT audit underscores need to put governor in charge

tdominick@thestate.com

THE LATEST AUDIT of the state Transportation Department offers something for everyone.

It supports the argument that the agency needs much more money to patch the potholes in our potholes and repair our crumbling bridges — while also supporting the argument that the agency is wasting the money it has and inflating the cost of bringing our road system up to decent repair.

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It supports the argument that we need to get more money out of the gas tax — along with the argument that we need to steal more money from the general fund to pay for roads.

But on one crucial matter, the Legislative Audit Council report is unambiguous: We’re not directing our limited road funds to our most critical needs.

This is not a revelation, but it’s a crucial reminder as the House and Senate enter negotiations that could result in much-needed reforms to the agency — or in nothing.

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Yes, it will take significantly more money to get our roads up to even “fair” condition, much less the unrealistic standard of “good” or “excellent.” But we wouldn’t need as much more money if we spent it wisely, choosing the right roads to repair and choosing correctly between building and repairing. My favorite fact in the audit: The agency built 760 new lane-miles since 2008, while the roads we already had continued to deteriorate. Dangerously so.

The audit cites two primary reasons for the misplaced priorities, and both are a result of failed “reforms” that the Legislature passed after the devastating 2006 audit. The first is a governance system that divided control between a secretary appointed by the governor, presumably with a statewide perspective, and legislatively appointed commissioners with parochial perspectives and the power to sabotage the governor’s secretary. The second is a prioritization mechanism that is a fraud. Either problem alone might be overcome; together they are crippling.

The Legislature long was uninterested in fixing the governance problem, because it suits some legislators just fine. It’s encouraging that both the House and the Senate have voted to let the governor appoint the commission. There are differences between the two bills, but nothing that should prevent them from reaching an agreement and getting a reform bill to the governor’s desk this year. And absolutely no excuse for a failure to do so.

The Legislature still has not acknowledged the problem with its heralded requirement that road projects be ranked according to objective criteria. The auditors didn’t seem to recognize the cause of the problem, but they certainly recognized the symptoms: The agency can’t document that it has followed the law, doesn’t explain why the Transportation Commission moves projects up on the priority lists and maintains so many separate priority lists that we end up spending money on what should be low-priority projects while our crucial needs go unaddressed.

The cause of the problem is that the law says the commission must rank projects “taking into consideration at least” the criteria listed in the law. This allows the commission to “consider” the objective criteria and then add such criteria as “potential to get my legislative patrons re-elected” or “make a bundle for my best friend.” Essentially, a priority is whatever the horse-trading commission decides is a priority, because the commission decides it’s a priority. It is, therefore, impossible for the commission to disobey the law.

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Even if the objective-criteria requirement were real, it still wouldn’t guarantee our road dollars were spent on the most important projects, because the agency maintains 157 separate priority lists. Now, I understand the need to have separate lists for, say, projects that can use federal money and projects that can be paid for only with state funds; there might even be a couple of other legitimate break-outs. But 157? That virtually guarantees us 156 No. 1 projects that are less important than the No. 2 project on one of the lists. So we spend money on some or all of those 156 projects before we get around to that more important No. 2 project.

Of course, we wouldn’t need a law telling commissioners to prioritize road projects according to our state’s needs if we had commissioners who were interested in our state’s needs. But we’ve never had that sort of commissioners; we’ve always had commissioners who believed that their job was to look out for their area of the state, rather than the state.

Neither the House nor the Senate bill fixes the objective-criteria fraud or the 157-separate-lists problem. Neither bill mandates the fix-it-first policy that we need to adopt so we can get our roads and bridges back up to decent working order before we build more.

But the bills do the best they can to fix the problem of parochial commissioners, by allowing a statewide elected official, our governor, to appoint the commissioners, rather than having each one appointed by the legislators who live in the congressional district he is to represent. That might do the job, and I certainly hope it will, because at this point, it’s probably the best we’re going to get.

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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