Expect business as usual without DOT reform
So far the Legislature has yet to advance a reform plan for the state Department of Transportation, though the events of the past year say that action is overdue. The highway commission has shown itself to be as parochial as ever and largely out of touch with the goals of the 2007 reform of the agency.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, is even predicting that the session could end without action on any of the reforms for the DOT or the highway commission.
“There is still potential to game the system and some people like it like that,” Sen. Grooms says.
Don’t blame the messenger.
In recent years, Sen. Grooms has been outspoken in his advocacy of highway reform.
If the Legislature is unwilling to abolish the commission, there are still reforms it should be able to agree on.
For example, Sen. Grooms has recommended tightening the road priority rankings, increasing the percentage of funding used for maintenance and road-widening, and moving the agency’s independent auditor into offices adjacent to the state’s new inspector general.
All are good ideas — but making changes to the priority ranking system would do the most to rein in pork-barrel highway spending.
Creating the priority list was a major accomplishment of the 2007 legislative reform. It established a ranking system by which the most important projects would be listed, and presumably dealt with by transportation officials.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked that way.
Flexibility was granted by the Legislature to accommodate changing circumstances and emergencies. That has allowed the commission to ignore the list and concentrate on making major transportation decisions the old way — by parochialism and horse-trading.
The best example of that is the $344 million bond issue approved by the commission a year ago. That bond proposal would fund five projects, only one of which is listed on the state’s priority list. And the proposal would use up virtually all of the DOT’s remaining bonding capacity.
To make matters worse, the discussion and decision-making on the bonding plan were done virtually out of the public’s eye.
Fortunately, 5th District Commissioner Sarah Nuckles raised the roof over the proposal and the manner in which it was considered, and after several months of increasingly bad publicity, the commission voted to suspend the bond plan last October.
Eddie Adams, who was named chairman of the highway commission this year, tells us that the bond proposal won’t be reconsidered “until we get our finances straight.” At present, “It’s the last thing on our mind.”
The commission may be on its best behavior now, but the bond affair demonstrated what it is capable of.
“The bond issue is the biggest reason why we don’t need a commission,” says Rep. Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, who sponsored the House bill to abolish the board.
Certainly, it demonstrated the inadequacy of the previous reform effort, and should spur the Legislature to finish the job.
Unfortunately, Rep. Lucas says that comprehensive DOT reform won’t happen at this point in the session. “We’ll do it next year,” he says.
With the perennial shortage of highway funding every dollar should be put to best use. That’s of vital importance to avoid gridlock, ensure safety and to keep the existing transportation network from crumbling.
A sustained effort toward those goals can’t be achieved under the state’s current system.