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State can't wait to fix its roads

Source: Greenville Online Editorial

December 1, 2014

When Pete Selleck speaks, South Carolina legislators need to listen. Selleck, the president and chairman of the Greenville-based Michelin North America, recently shared an insightful warning about the danger of our state continuing to ignore its dangerous and inadequate highway system.

In an appearance during his company's recruiting trip to the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business, Selleck was asked by a student about the challenges facing his company, according to a Greenville News story by Tim Smith. "The roads in this state are a disgrace," Selleck answered.

Consider this, if you will, a case of business power speaking truth to state government power. Anyone who drives much at all in virtually any place in South Carolina already knows that many roads are crumbling, pitted with potholes and unable to accommodate the traffic now on them on a daily basis.

Michelin is a manufacturing giant in South Carolina. It operates 10 plants, Smith reported, including the new $50 million facility in Piedmont that the tire maker said will produce the Tweel. That is a new airless radial tire for front-end loaders, commercial lawnmowers and all-terrain vehicles. The company employs more than 7,700 people in South Carolina, according to its website.

South Carolina's road system is vitally important to the state's economic growth. That point has been made repeatedly as this state has watched its infrastructure deteriorate and the bill for needed repairs grow ever larger. This state has some of the worst roads in the country, and some of the most dangerous ones. The price tag to bring the roads and bridges up to an acceptable level will be about $1.5 billion a year more until 2040, based on the Department of Transportation's estimate that the state has a $42 billion funding shortfall.

Some counties in our state have decided to go it alone and raise their sales tax by 1 percent for a limited time in order to make local repairs. Greenville County voters overwhelmingly rejected that approach on Nov. 4, and many voters said they were looking to the state to repair roads. Local business leaders got little support in trying to drive home the point that economic growth eventually will be threatened by roads in such poor condition.

While not threatening to leave South Carolina, Selleck did make the point while at USC that if the state doesn't address its long-term infrastructure needs, Michelin eventually will have "to look about further expansion in the state."

Selleck said in a statement to The Greenville News, "It's easy for anyone to see the condition of the roads in our state. We're asking our government leaders to work together to reach a long-term solution to this problem."

A large part of South Carolina's problem is it relies on the gasoline tax as the primary source for funding the creation, improvement and repair of the transportation infrastructure. The gas tax has not been increased since 1987, but much has taken place in almost three decades. More cars are on roads, new roads are needed, and cars have gotten more efficient and therefore are using less gasoline. Less money is brought in when less gas is sold at the pump. At the same time, even if lawmakers found the courage to raise the gas tax, Gov. Nikki Haley has threatened to veto the bill.

Rep. Gary Simrill, the chairman of a special House committee studying the infrastructure challenges, has discussed several ideas before his committee. One, a "fix it first, fund it second" mentality has political appeal but really delays a long-term solution and essentially transfers some of the burden for fixing roads to local governments.

Yes, the state DOT should be "fixed" to ensure it spends every dollar wisely and takes politics out of funding decisions. But such agency improvements will go only so far in taking care of aging infrastructure. Also, pushing the responsibility for thousands of miles of roads onto counties doesn't fix those roads, and merely shifts the burden from the state to counties.

Simrill's committee is looking at a number of hybrid funding plans that in many cases still would leave the state short of the funds needed to repair and expand transportation infrastructure. Gov. Haley also has promised to share her plan in January for funding infrastructure improvements. Meanwhile, our roads continue to get worse.

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