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Fixing road requires heat from business

Author: Chuck Crumbo

Source: Columbia Regional Business Report: Panel

November 21, 2014

If the business community wants South Carolina’s transportation infrastructure improved to fuel economic development, then it needs to put pressure on members of the General Assembly.

That’s the message panel members delivered at this morning’s Power Breakfast hosted by the Columbia Regional Business Report at the Double Tree by Hilton Hotel.

The panel of three state legislators – Sen. Joel Lourie, and Reps. Nathan Ballentine and Beth Bernstein – and Otis Rawl, president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, reacted to Michelin North America chief Pete Selleck’s remarks on Wednesday at the University of South Carolina that the state’s roads are a “disgrace.”

All members of the panel agreed that the roads need fixing and an increase the state gas tax – which is 16.75 cents per gallon and third-lowest in the country – could remedy what the S.C. Department of Transportation says is a $1.5 billion a year shortfall in funding.

Last year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill that commits more than $600 million for building and repairing roads and bridges. It was the first increase in state funding for highways in nearly three decades.

“We’re behind the eight ball so far in revenue,” Rawl said.

South Carolina stands on the “cusp of greatness” with expansion of the Port of Charleston underway to accommodate larger cargo ships expected to call on the Palmetto State, Rawl said.

Once expansion is completed in the next 6 to 8 years, the port expects to handle another half-million TEUs annually.

“We can’t handle that with our rail system,” Rawl said. South Carolina needs to upgrade and maintain its transportation infrastructure to serve existing businesses as well as drive economic development, which creates jobs, he added.

In addition to supporting growth in South Carolina, the state’s roads impact regional growth by allowing goods to be hauled to and from the port from manufacturing facilities in west Georgia, North Carolina, and eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, Rawl said.

Improving the state’s transportation infrastructure impacts the state’s quality of life, economic development and public safety, said Lourie, D-Columbia.

“God forbid that we should have to wait for a bridge collapses or a road collapses and people are hurt seriously because of our failure to deal with this problem,” Lourie said.

However, getting the legislature to do something will take pressure from outside, he added.

The legislature – both House and Senate – essentially is made up of three groups, Lourie, said. One group is willing to look at increasing taxes in order to get things done. Another tends to be pragmatic about taxes, providing it doesn’t take any political heat. And the third group is the “not no, but hell no” crowd that won’t vote for any tax increase, the senator said.

If enough pressure can be asserted on the middle group – the pragmatists – then the Senate has a good chance of passing legislation to fund the roads, Lourie said.

The time may be right for trying to find a way to fix funding for the state’s roads and bridges, said Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin. How the money is raised is another question.

While not opposed to raising the gas tax, Ballentine wants the legislature to examine other funding sources. “What I want to do is look for alternative ways to fund that,” said Ballentine.

“We’ve got to hear from you guys,” Ballentine said, addressing a room packed with business leaders. “That is what it is going to take to move the ‘hell no’ crowd into ‘let’s get something done.’”

People might be more accepting of raising the gas tax a few pennies if they understood just how little it would impact their wallet and that the money was going to be spent on roads, said Bernstein, D-Columbia.

But people – including legislators – get gun-shy about raising taxes, Bernstein said. She noted that the condition of some roads in South Carolina cause tires to blowout, wreck suspensions and often require people to take their cars to a garage for a wheel realignment.

“We have reached dire levels,” Bernstein said. The cost of fixing a car or replacing a damaged tire would be “much greater than if we raised the gas tax,” she said.

Rawl expects more business leaders will be joining Selleck in putting pressure on the legislature and Haley to do something about the roads.

The condition of the state’s roads is critical to the mission of theses businesses – from aerospace to automotive – that are expanding and locating in South Carolina, Rawl said.

“I think you’ll see more of these businesses step up,” Rawl said. “All of these CEOs will be here to talk about the type of infrastructure that we need to be world class and to recruit new industry to the state.”

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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