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Lawmakers say keep pressure on for highway, bridge repairs

Source: Greenville News

September 24, 2013

State lawmakers are urging those who want the state’s roads and bridges fixed to make their voices heard.

At a conference hosted by South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, seven lawmakers were asked when additional funding would be provided to address an estimated $10 billion to $29 billion backlog of bridge and road needs in the state.

None offered guarantees, with some describing the task as a “tough road” following passage of legislation this year that will provide more than $600 million for infrastructure needs.

“You’ve got to push us,” Sen. Paul Campbell, a Berkeley County Republican who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee, told the audience of business and special interest groups who support more road funding.

This year’s funding is being used to provide at least $500 million in bonded revenue to help seven major interstate projects totaling $1.7 billion, including three on Interstate 85.

Lawmakers also provided up to $50 million for the state match in bridge projects and $41.5 million in vehicle sales tax revenue to be used on non-federal aid secondary roads.

Lawmakers said the funding package was a start to a problem that may not be solved in a year.

“I suspect whatever the solutions are, they are going to be incremental,” said House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister of Greenville. “This group (the alliance) is going to have to have staying power. This is a long-term project.”

Rep. Kenny Bingham, a Lexington County Republican and former House majority leader, said what is remarkable about this year’s effort isn’t the legislation that passed for more funding but that so many groups came together to back it.

He said in any one year, more than 3,000 bills are filed and lawmakers are easily distracted. What the Legislature ends up focusing on, he said, are the issues that matter most according to public input.

“Continue doing what you’re doing,” he said. “I’m saying don’t relax.”

A pending bill before the Senate contains part of the bonding proposal passed this year but with a bevy of other funding ideas, including raising the cost of a driver’s license by $1 per year, the cost of vehicle registrations by $6 a year and a fee for alternative-fuel vehicles.

The bill also would index the gas tax for inflation, something Rep. Tommy Stringer of Greenville, also at Monday’s conference, championed without success in the House.

Campbell said an index would cost the average driver $4 over 10 years.

“We’ve got to step up, folks,” he said. “We’ve got to pay for what we need to do to fix these roads.”

Bannister said the House is reluctant to approve any increase in the gas tax.

“However, we also understand that sometimes things need to be fixed,” he said. “And if there is no other solution, then we’re going to look at all the options. Nothing is off the table, I believe.”

Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee, said lawmakers have “got to stop being afraid of what might happen in the next primary or the next election.”

He said lawmakers shouldn’t be afraid of threats by Gov. Nikki Haley to veto a bill that increases or indexes the gas tax. “Let her veto it,” he said.

However, other lawmakers urged the group to find a consensus with Haley, arguing that any past solution to a major problem facing the state has been led by the governor.

Haley said after the bill was passed this year that she wants to see signs of construction on the projects funded in the legislation and to confirm that the projects all were selected under the state’s priority system before considering support for additional funding.

“Gov. Haley has made supporting increased transportation spending a priority, which is why she signed into law a $1 billion infrastructure bill without raising taxes this past June -- the largest investment in roads and bridges in 25 years,” Doug Mayer, Haley’s spokesman, told GreenvilleOnline.com.

“Better infrastructure in South Carolina means more and better jobs for the people of this state, and it will continue to be one of the governor’s priorities.”

Department of Transportation Chairman Johnny Edwards of Travelers Rest told GreenvilleOnline.com that he is hopeful for more transportation funding. “Next year is an election year,” he said. “Hopefully we will get more funding.”

Otis Rawl, president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, said the organization is commissioning a survey of residents to find out what types of solutions to the state’s transportation system they will support.

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