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'Malfunction Junction' redesign gets $10 million commitment

Source: The State

November 13, 2013

“Malfunction Junction” is getting a makeover.

For the first time, the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board agreed Tuesday to set aside money – $10 million – to redesign the dreaded interchange near downtown Columbia, where Interstates 26 and 20 meet to snarl traffic and commuters.

The money comes from the $550 million loan that state lawmakers authorized to pay for major interstate projects. Taxpayers will pay off that loan over the next 15 years.

“It’s desperately needed,” state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, a member of the Transportation Infrastructure Bank board, said of the redesign. “I want us to address the problem for the good of the state.”

But don’t expect to shorten your commute anytime soon, however.

Transportation officials say the design work will take two years to complete. After that, construction could cost as much as $800 million and take up to 10 years to complete, given the heavy traffic that now passes through the interchange every day and must be accommodated during construction.

Still, Don Leonard, chairman of the Infrastructure Bank Board and an appointee of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, said it was important to get the process started so officials can start “developing a master plan to modernize the South Carolina interstate system.”

A key unanswered question is where the rest of the money needed to repair and modernize roads would come from. The bill that state lawmakers approved earlier this year – and Haley signed – would pay for about $1 billion in new road spending over the next decade. But transportation officials say the state needs $29 billion more to fix its roads over the next 20 years.

State legislators called the $550 million loan a “Band-Aid,” pledging to find more money to pay for repairs. However, both legislative budget chairmen – Senate Finance chairman Leatherman and House Ways and Means chairman Brian White, R-Anderson – have said they don’t want the state to borrow more money.

Leatherman said he instead supports raising the state’s 16.5 cents-a-gallon gas tax, the third lowest in the country. White says he favors other ideas, including taxing hybrid and electric cars that don’t use as much fuel as conventional cars.

White said he does not expect lawmakers to come up with a road-repair solution in the legislative session that starts in January, the start of an election year. Instead, White said he expects lawmakers to introduce a “comprehensive plan” in January 2015 and spend two years debating it.

“Does that include rail? Does it include mass transit? We’ve got to look at the whole thing and not just have a patchwork, piecemeal approach,” White said.

The Malfunction Junction money is not yet final.

The state Joint Bond Review Committee still must approve the Infrastructure Bank’s decision. The review board is scheduled to discuss the money at its Dec. 4 meeting. But that vote is most likely a formality.

Leatherman, who voted for the money as a member of the Infrastructure Bank board, also is the chairman of the Bond Review Committee.

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