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Comprehensive Roads Bill Needed

Source: Greenville Online

December 30, 2013

The General Assembly deserves credit at least for recognizing the seriousness of the state’s highway-funding problem. What it needs, however, is a bit more focus on how to address that critical problem.

An array of bills has been proposed this legislative session to address the funding deficit. Problem is, none of them is comprehensive enough to address a problem that could require more than $1 billion a year in additional funding to fix. 

The state road system is in generally poor condition. It’s so bad that the state Transportation Secretary has said that his role right now is to manage the “decline of the state highway system.” The needs are so acute that one state panel has determined it would cost $29 billion over the next 20 years to get the roads to just an “average” rating. 

It may be true that every little bit helps. However, without an incredible amount of money entering the system the state’s road network as a whole will continue to decline even if the state DOT is able to improve some roads in the state. Coming up with a token amount of money that only addresses a narrow fraction of the road needs would be the equivalent of taking one step forward and two steps backward. 

South Carolina has the fourth highest total number of state maintained highways in the country. It has one of the lowest gasoline taxes in the country — a tax that has not been raised in more than two decades. This state also has a history of inadequately funding some essential government functions, and many of our legislators have an obsession with cutting taxes, even at a time when the state needs to recover from significant budget cuts in the wake of the Great Recession. All together, it’s a lethal combination for maintaining roads and highways that are essential to our state’s economic development. 

There are at least eight bills in the state Legislature right now that seek to bridge some of the funding gap, according to reports by The Greenville News and The State newspaper. The most aggressive of those bills calls for the state to divert 100 percent of automobile sales tax to road repairs. That would total $100 million a year, less than one-tenth of what’s needed. Another bill proposes borrowing $500 million for road repairs, a third of what’s needed in one year and less than 2 percent of the total road funding deficit. 

Another proposal would transfer responsibility for some state-maintained roads to counties or municipalities. That makes sense in some instances, but on a large scale such a change would simply shift a burden and, ultimately, the same lack of resources would prevent the roads from being upgraded. It would be shortsighted to adopt a piecemeal solution. 

It would be even more shortsighted to do nothing. What’s important in this situation is that the Legislature think big. It’s also important that politicians and state residents set aside ideological objections to such things as raising the gasoline tax and imposing new transportation-related fees. The pain of a new tax increase would pale in comparison to the long-term damage that could be done to the state’s economy if we allow the state road system to continue to crumble and fall apart. 

Employers depend upon a reliable infrastructure to get employees to and from work and to get goods to market. Residents deserve to be safe when they travel, and they should not have to worry about their cars being damaged by substandard roads. 

This state cannot quickly undo years of neglect, insufficient funding and, in some cases, fiscal mismanagement. However, lawmakers need to make sure they begin giving roads the attention they deserve. Adequate funding needs to be found to stop the bleeding and begin turning this situation around. 

That solution likely will require that not just one of these bills be passed, but that lawmakers choose multiple options from a menu of solutions and then combine them into a comprehensive bill. For example, such a bill could include a combination of a higher gasoline tax, removal of the cap on automobile sales taxes with a redirection of such taxes going to road maintenance, and new fees for more fuel efficient vehicles. 

Whatever the combination of ideas, only a comprehensive bill will put this state on the road to safer, well-maintained highways that will contribute to the prosperity of South Carolina, its businesses and its residents.

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