Two bills that would have given the state Department of Transportation a badly needed increase in the state gas tax were scrapped this week, even as members of the House Ways and Means Committee praised bill sponsors for tackling a problem that needs immediate attention.
Certainly, Reps. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens, and Tommy Stringer, R-Greenville, deserve credit for taking their respective stabs at a longstanding state problem. And the committee’s inaction is all the more perplexing in light of its praise.
The need for more funding has been thoroughly documented for years. It also should be painfully evident to any motorist who spends much time traveling on the state’s inadequate highways.
A recent study for the DOT put the shortfall at nearly $30 billion over the next 20 years. And it noted that 30 to 40 percent of the state gas tax is paid by out-of-state motorists and truckers.
That’s a compelling argument for increasing the gas tax, which at 16.5 cents per gallon is among the lowest in the nation. And it hasn’t been increased since 1987, despite repeated warnings about the deteriorating condition of our roadways. The longer that repairs are delayed, the greater the expense will ultimately be.
The gas tax functions as a user fee, and it should be increased to a level adequate to improve and maintain the state road system.
Representatives of the state trucking industry, Patrick Barber and Rick Todd, recognize the problem, and in their op-ed on our Commentary page, urge the Legislature to pursue measures to improve the funding situation, even if inadequate to meet the overwhelming shortfall.
Rep. Skelton wanted to increase the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon, with a rebate to residents for the first two and a half years. During the effective period of the rebate, it would have raised $124 million annually from out-of-state motorists. After the rebate expired, it would have generated $335 million a year.
Rep. Stringer would have increased the gas tax by a nickel a gallon, and then provided for further hikes based on the consumer price index. It would have raised about $167 million the first year.
In contrast, Gov. Nikki Haley has recommended an additional $100 million for the DOT, using new revenue and shifting to road projects those gas tax revenues that have been diverted to other areas.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell wants to give the DOT revenue from vehicle sales taxes sales, raising about $80 million. That plan has been approved by the House.
It could have done far more if the outdated $300 sales tax cap had been revised upward. But that idea was rejected.
Obviously, neither the governor’s supplemental funding plan nor the speaker’s approaches the $1.5 billion extra annual allocation that the DOT needs in order to catch up on overdue projects. But each is a start in the right direction.
And having now recognized that the problem exists, maybe next year the House budget writing committee will actually do something to address it.