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SC road funding lags behind population growth predictions

Author: John Moritz, AP

Source: The State

June 28, 2015


Commuters in South Carolina’s five largest metro areas spend less time traveling to work than the national average, but with rapid population growth forecast, the state has yet to dedicate money the Department of Transportation says it needs to improve road infrastructure. 

According to survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, average commute times in South Carolina range from 21.6 minutes in the Greenville-Anderson-Mauldin metro area to 23.9 minutes in Columbia. The average national urban commute is 25.8 minutes. 

But four of the five South Carolina metro areas with populations greater than 100,000 are expected to grow by more than 4 percent in the next five years, according to census data. The largest growth is expected for the coast, where the Charleston and Myrtle Beach metro areas are expected to grow by 9.3 and 11 percent, respectively. 

In Columbia, which is expected to grow by 5.1 percent, politicians battled all spring to find the estimated $400 million in additional annual funding requested by the state DOT to maintain roads in their current conditions. To improve roads and increase the capacity of the state’s highways, the department says it needs to add $1 billion in annual funding. 

But a chorus of proposals – ranging from increasing the gas tax to reforming the DOT – failed to gain enough traction before the end of the legislative session June 4. Some funding could be on its way this year in the form of $150 million in additional spending that has received the support of both the House and Senate, but a larger agreement will have to wait until next January. 

Gov. Nikki Haley kicked off the year with a surprise reversal on her campaign promises not to increase the gas tax. During her State of the State address, the governor called for a gas tax increase coupled with income tax cuts. 

The House, which had planned on finding $400 million for roads without a gas tax increase, passed a roads bill with a veto-proof majority seven weeks before the end of the session. The bill cut the income tax by far less than the $1.8 billion the governor asked for. 

The Senate followed up with a proposal to raise $800 million annually from taxes and fees, while cutting $700 million from income tax revenues. A filibuster by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, with two weeks left killed the bill. Davis argued increased tax revenues from population growth and improved DOT spending could provide sufficient road funding. 

Business leaders in the state largely supported efforts to increase spending on roads, arguing that crumbling road conditions could reverse the trend of economic growth since the end of the Great Recession. 

The state DOT oversees the country’s fourth largest highway system. According to the DOT, 10 percent of interstate highway miles are in “poor” condition, 46 percent of federal and state highways are in “poor” condition and half of secondary roads not receiving federal funding are labeled “poor.” 

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