Deal Cut to Begin Fixing S.C. Roads
June 18, 2013
COLUMBIA — A plan approved by lawmakers that could spend more than $600 million on the state's roads and bridges will not be used on any pet projects of legislators, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee says.
Sen. Larry Grooms, chairman of the transportation panel, told GreenvilleOnline.com an agreement approved Monday carries language to ensure the money is spent based on objective criteria and not on any projects approved before July.
"If any member knew exactly where (this money was going), if they had a pet project hidden somewhere, I don't see how could occur," he said. "Any projects eligible for this money would have to rise on their merits, without any legislators' pet project rising to the top through political purposes. There will be absolute scoring for any of the projects funded."
That had been a concern of Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler of Gaffney, a member of the panel that approved the deal, who worried that without the proper language some lawmakers would use the money to pay for existing pet projects, such as completion of the Interstate 526 extension in Charleston.
Grooms said he has no idea how the money will be spent, which is how he said it should be.
The agreement, approved unanimously Monday by a negotiating team of three House members and three senators, calls for sending $50 million in recurring money to the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which can then issue bonds on the amount for as much as $500 million. Any projects would be picked by the state Department of Transportation, using the state's priority system criteria.
The deal also would spend half the annual vehicles sales tax revenue, minus about $20 million for education funding, on the state's roads that don't qualify for federal aid. That would amount to about $41.4 million for the budget starting in July.
The agreement also would send up to $50 million in any surplus money on the state's bridges. Officials estimate that amount currently at about $34 million, though that could be used for five times that number for federal matching funds.
The agreement must be approved by a two-thirds vote by both legislative bodies.
A spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley did not offer her opinion of the proposal.
"While the governor has not hesitated to voice her strong support for strengthening infrastructure with funds we have available now, making it a priority in her executive budget, she is going to take a close look at the state budget as soon as the General Assembly sends it to her," he said.
Grooms said he does not see any trouble ahead for the plan to receive its final legislative blessing.
"This is more monies than either body thought was possible," he said.
The plan received immediate praise from those who have been pushing lawmakers to fix the state's crumbling infrastructure. Several described it as a good start toward addressing the state's road and bridge needs.
"There's a celebration in the business community," said Otis Rawl, president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. "To be able to put almost $650 million aside, that's a pretty good hit for us to accomplish what we're trying to accomplish."
He said the business community will be pressing lawmakers to continue road funding efforts next year and will keep doing so until funding reaches $600 million each year.
"We believe that's about the minimum you can put forward to meet the demand," he said.
Bill Ross, executive director of the South Carolina Alliance To Fix Our Roads, said road supporters had been worried the Legislature would not fund what is ultimately needed, about $1.5 billion a year.
"We didn't get what we needed but we certainly moved much further along," he said. "I think the awareness is there. I think this proves that. We hope we can continue the momentum next year."
Rick Todd, president and CEO of the S.C. Trucking Association, said the agreement was a "very good start in a tough political climate."
"With pervasive no-tax sentiment, for them to direct existing revenues is a very appropriate and conservative way to approach budgeting for the highway needs," he said. "While everybody recognizes (this is) not going to be able to do a whole lot, I think it's a very good start. I think it will whet the public's appetite for road improvements and they'll see a return on their tax dollars in a real direct way."
A task force appointed by the State Department of Transportation Commission last year estimated the state's road and bridge needs total $29 billion over 20 years. A business group estimated the price tag at $6 billion over 10 years.
The state has not raised the gas tax, one of the lowest in the nation, since 1987.
The state operates the fourth-largest state-maintained road system in the nation. About half the state's primary and more than half the state's secondary roads are rated in poor condition.
"What we're proposing here would be the most significant improvement for our state highway system since the inception of the Infrastructure Bank," Grooms said. "This is an enormous leap forward in meeting the needs of our state."