Why Revenue Won’t Solve S.C.’s Roads Problem

MORE MONEY HASN’T IMPROVED SOUTH CAROLINA’S ROAD SYSTEM – AND FOR A VERY GOOD REASON.

If more money were the answer to the state’s infrastructure woes, the topic would hardly be worth debating. The real trouble with South Carolina’s roads, though, isn’t a lack of money. It’s a lack – indeed, a total lack – of citizen control or influence on road funding.

How do we know more money won’t produce better roads?

Consider the fact that since fiscal year 2011-2012, the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) total ratified budget (from all three parts of the budget – General Fund, federal funds, Other Funds) has grown by more than $500 million, from $1.1 billion in 2011, to more than $1.6 billion in 2016. Further, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank’s (STIB) has skyrocketed from $50 million in 2014, to a whopping $270 million in 2016.

The state’s transportation budget is growing, then – more money has been put into it – with no discernible improvement.

The common misconception by proponents of a gas tax increase is that the state needs more overall revenue. That’s not the same as supposing we need to spend more of what we have on repair. Consider: in the last fiscal year $396 million of the $1.69 billion in transportation funding was free to be devoted to pavement resurfacing/maintenance.

In reality, though, no one has any idea if the state needs more overall revenue. Why? Because the current system of prioritization and funding of projects is not transparent. For example, $85.1 million of disbursements from the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank have been made to the home county of Florence Sen. Hugh Leatherman – who also happens to be a member of the STIB board. Under our current system, it’s simply impossible to know if these monies were used on the most pressing transportation needs in the state.

Transparency by itself, though, will accomplish very little as long as the underlying problem remains the same – namely that the lion’s share of power over the DOT belongs to two lawmakers for whom the great majority of South Carolinians can’t vote for and have never heard of. Consider:

  • Seven of the eight members that comprise the DOT Commission are appointed by the state’s seven legislative delegations, and those delegation members can only choose from a list of candidates screened and approved by the Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC).
  • The House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem directly control half the appointments to the JTRC.
  • The governor has one appointment to the Commission, and even that appointee has to be approved by the JTRC.
  • The Speaker and Senate President pro tem wield the majority of the power over the STIB board by controlling four of the seven appointments.

No reasonable and unbiased person would look at this system – a system dominated by a few people who can’t be held accountable for the total outcome – and conclude that its woes must be due to a lack of money.

Clearly reform must come before any consideration of revenue. But how?

  • The Department of Transportation Commission should be eliminated and the DOT Secretary made directly accountable to the governor. Decisions affecting the state’s road system should be made by an official accountable to the entire state – the governor – and when the system fails in one way or another, citizens should know who’s responsible.
  • The STIB should be eliminated entirely. Revenue currently used by the STIB to pay bond debt and fund new projects should fund repair and maintenance of the roads we currently have. If bonding is necessary to pay for roads in the future, that debt should be incurred by a fully accountable DOT.
  • Finally: expenditures, matching federal projects, debt, and project prioritization should be fully transparent. Citizens should be able to see how much money is actually available for our roads, and which projects are being funded – the most critical, or pet projects. Only when citizens and the media can see exactly which projects are being funded and which aren’t – unnecessary expansions versus long-needed repair, for instance – will those in authority have an incentive to change.

Once these reforms are achieved, lawmakers may begin talking about taking more money from taxpayers and putting it into the transportation system. Not until then.

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