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Fixing roads requires heat from businessLegislature seeks political map to fixing S.C. roads

Author: Chuck Crumbo

Source: Columbia Regional Business Report

December 5, 2014

More than a month before the 121st General Assembly convenes, legislators are offering ideas on how fix and fund South Carolina’s highway system.

On Wednesday, the chairman of a special House committee that he expects to have a bill ready sometime in January. The first regular session of the General Assembly will be held Jan 13.

Also on Wednesday, state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, pre-filed a bill that would increase the gas tax by 2 cents per gallon each year for 10 years while lowering the state’s income tax by 2 cents on the dollar.

And state Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, filed a bill that would create a fund for the expansion of interstate highways in the State Infrastructure Bank. The measure is expected to provide $60 million a year from sales tax on cars and trucks.

Just when the House committee’s bill will be filed hasn’t been determined, said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill.

“January,” Simrill said in answering a question from committee member state Rep. Bill Hixon, R-Aiken, about a timeline for the bill’s introduction. “But I don’t want us to be planning a press conference at this point.”

When House Speaker Jay Lucas asked him to chair the bipartisan panel, which began its work in September, he didn’t want to be “rushed to produce a bill,” Simrill said.

‘Fix it first’

The language of the bill is a work in progress. However, Simrill said he expects key components of the measure will include establishing the Department of Transportation as a cabinet agency, reorganization of the State Infrastructure Bank, and ceding thousands of miles of roads that the state owns to local governments.

The special committee is taking a “fix it first, fund it second” approach in bolstering state Transportation Department, Simrill said.

By “fix it first,” Simrill said the panel wants to find ways that the SCDOT can shed some of the roads it’s tasked with maintaining. South Carolina is the 40th largest state in terms of area, but has the fourth-largest highway system with more than 41,000 miles of roads.

“DOT is managing more roads than states two or three times our size,” Simrill said.

One idea being explored is the devolution of about 18,000 miles of roads that have no state purpose to the counties. For example, one road on the list that would be ceded has 55 homes on it and ends as a cul-de-sac at the edge of a marsh.

The panel also is looking to streamline the Transportation Department’s operation by making it a cabinet agency run by the governor with the Legislature given budget oversight, Simrill said.

Another idea is to increase the size of the board running the State Infrastructure Bank to provide greater representation across the state, Simrill said.

The present structure allows the two most powerful members of the General Assembly – the House Speaker and Senate Pro Tem – to each appoint two members of the seven-member board. Two other members are appointed by the governor and the seventh member is chairman of the S.C. Transportation Commission.

Simrill said the panel hasn’t settled on how many members should be on the board. One possibility would be to have a member from each of the state’s seven congressional districts or its 16 judicial circuits.

Simrill thinks streamlining SCDOT administration and broadening regional representation on the infrastructure bank will make road funding fairer and improve the state’s credibility, especially in working with local government.

The infrastructure bank, which has the authority to borrow money, would work from a priority list drawn up by the SCDOT on which projects to fund.

The Transportation Department uses money collected from state and federal programs to pay for projects.

Political challenges

Finding enough money to fix the roads offers political and economic challenges.

Although there are more cars and trucks on the roads, proceeds of the state’s 16.75-cent-per-gallon gas tax have been relatively flat in recent years because vehicles are getting better gas mileage. A one-cent increase in the gas tax would raise about $32 million, according to the SCDOT.

Although many of the state’s business leaders favor raising the gas tax, which is the third lowest in the nation, Gov. Nikki Haley has vowed to veto any measure that would raise it.

Presently it appears there aren’t enough votes in the House to override a veto, Simrill said. “It takes 43 members of the House to sustain a veto and I’ve had over 50 members who’ve told me they are not for an increase in the gas tax. That’s a political reality.”

With a hike in the gas tax apparently on the sidelines, Simrill said the panel is looking for other ways to fund the shortfall.

One idea that was being studied called for zeroing out the flat-rate gas tax and removing the sales tax exemption on fuel. A year ago that seemed like an attractive idea as the price of regular gasoline hovered at more than $3 a gallon. But with the price of gas falling to around $2.50 a gallon, there’ll be less money collected.

The legislature may have to look at a “hybrid” of money sources for the roads with dollars coming from the general fund, gas tax and sales tax, Simrill said. Additionally, the legislature might look at increasing fees for driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations to generate money for the roads.

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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