Belt-tightening is badly needed at the S.C. Department of Transportation, and the agency's director and staff are doing what they can to comply. Too bad the highway commission isn't willing to follow suit.
Since The Post and Courier reported that the agency had fallen behind on payments to contractors, the DOT has managed to get its federal counterpart to expedite reimbursements to the state to address that critical situation.
Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Robert St. Onge has decided to delay state projects amounting to $24 million over the next two months to keep the state from falling again into similar difficulties.
But the highway commission? It is proceeding full steam ahead with plans to borrow $344 million -- virtually all the remaining bonding capacity for the agency -- to build five major road projects. Only one of those projects is on the state's priority list.
On Thursday, the commission narrowly failed to revoke its ill-considered April vote to borrow the money. At least some commissioners are getting the message about the agency's financial situation.
For example, Commissioner John Edwards of Travelers Rest said the agency shouldn't go forward with the bond issue until it gets its finances straight.
He was joined by Commissioner Sarah Nuckles of Rock Hill and Commissioner Clifton Parker, the governor's appointee. Ms. Nuckles has criticized the commission's profligacy over the last several months and deserves the thanks of the taxpayers of the state for doing so.
Instead, on Thursday she received a tongue lashing by Commission Chairman Danny Isaac.
"To go to the media and show the disparity of your personal opinions is counter-productive to all of the people," Mr. Isaac said. "It's an absolute insult. Verify your facts. That's all I ask."
While Commissioner Nuckles' opinions might be at variance with other members of the commission, so far the facts haven't been in dispute. And Mr. Isaac didn't provide any specifics.
Curiously, Mr. Isaac chaired the meeting via conference call. Given the serious financial problems at the DOT, it would have been reasonable to expect the chairman actually to be present at this particular meeting.
The commission's bonding decision ultimately will be reviewed by the legislative Joint Bond Review Committee and the state Budget and Control Board. The financial situation at the DOT alone should be sufficient to reject it at this point.
The larger issue is the commission's decision to proceed with four projects that aren't on the state priority list, including a plan to spend $105 million on an interchange for I-73 in Dillon County. The controversial interstate, which would serve the Grand Strand, has yet to be funded. Estimated cost: $2 billion.
Transportation may be, as Mr. Isaac stated, the lifeblood of commerce. But South Carolina doesn't have the funding to maintain its existing road system. It can't afford to commit its remaining resources to speculative projects driven largely by political considerations.
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