We South Carolinians might proudly rejoice in a pattern of no new taxes, but the reality persists that with roads and bridges, we pretty much get what we pay for.
And what do we have? The most dangerous highways in America, according to two national surveys last year.
And we clearly have a public policy problem now morphing toward crisis — a crummy road system, too many people dying on those roads; and the funding necessary to fix the problem is caught in the mantra that there will be no new taxes anytime for anything, not even for severely pressing public safety imperatives.
It's a public policy dilemma that demands once-and-for-all solutions befitting a state that sells itself in the global marketplace as progressive and business friendly.
Last year, S.C. Department of Transportation engineers published a report card for state bridges and roads. Their grade was a hard “F.” Transportation Secretary Robert St. Onge promptly disagreed, saying the grade should be a “D.” That's a distinction without a difference, but Secretary St. Onge later defined the problem in a stream of candor: “What my job is right now, given the resources, is to manage the decline of the state highway system.”
South Carolina needs about a billion dollars a year just to get control of long-deferred maintenance and the incremental needs of the nation's fourth largest state roads system. The current 16 cents per gallon levy is among the nation's lowest and hasn't been increased since 1986, when Carroll Campbell — hardly a tax-and-spend leader — was governor. It generates $550 million annually, but only $450 million of that is dedicated to roads and bridges.
The General Assembly increased the fuel tax three times in the '80s. And in 1986, the 16-cent fee was about 11.4 percent of the average cost of gasoline. Today, it's a mere 4.5 percent. The difference is pretty much the system deterioration Secretary St. Onge manages.
Gov. Nikki Haley wants to dedicate $100 million in projected new revenues to road and bridge projects. House Speaker Bobby Harrell is the lead sponsor of a bill that would direct sales taxes from vehicle purchases to road improvements. Their plans would generate nearly $200 million, but clearly the governor and the speaker are each tacking around the “no new taxes” dogma.
And Rep. Tommy Stringer, R-Greenville, believes that's the problem. “You can't adequately fund DOT needs without adjusting the gas tax,” he told GreenvilleOnline.com. last week. “You can say you can divert funding streams for other agencies, but not to the level that is needed at DOT.”
Rep. Stringer introduced legislation last week to increase the motor vehicles fuel fees a nickel to 21 cents a gallon and then index it to inflation.
If public safety is not enough to prompt long-term solutions, then how about the credibility of our state's economic development initiatives? The Commerce Department touts South Carolina's infrastructure — five interstate highways, enhanced by another 41,000 miles of state-maintained highways. We brag about $25 billion of exports, a true “who's who” of big-name global operators creating jobs all over our state, and the giant container ships that call Charleston Harbor.
It's sort of like keeping a family secret. South Carolina is a proud, progressive and ambitious state. We have road and bridge infrastructure crumbling before our eyes, and hope nobody notices. The Port of Charleston's long- range planning might make that point. State Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome has skillfully navigated the port's future to the deepening of Charleston Harbor.
With 50-foot channels, Charleston will have what Savannah won't — navigation capacities to serve larger ships using the expanded Panama Canal. Today, more than 70 per cent of “intermodal” containers arrive and depart by truck, most via Interstate 26. Newsome's strategy could produce a doubling of current port related truck traffic in seven to 12 years.
Can I-26 handle that? Ask the folks who know it best — the truckers who connect the dots of the state's economy.
North Charleston's Patrick T. Barber is chairman of the S.C. Trucking Association. He and his statewide colleagues have declared for decades that the state's interstate system, especially I-26, is woefully deficient. “We're talking about pavement qualities, lane capacities, inadequate and unsafe bridges and overpasses, and general safety features, like guard rails,” he says.
The S.C. Trucking Association advocates increased funding, including increased motor vehicle fuel fees.
“The state did a great job getting Charleston Harbor eight miles of 50-foot harbor channels,” Barber notes, “but the term 'intermodal' is a port- planning reality. Let's do an equally good job with the 221 miles of Interstate 26.”
We can readily conclude that this long-evolving problem is now a public safety imperative — and a practical economic development issue. Most of all, it's a challenge to us South Carolinians to understand that in many ways it defines who we are — progressive or backward?
Both ways won't work. We can do better — and now we must!
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, was president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities from 1979-86 and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans 1986-2002. A North Charleston city councilman, he can be reached at email@example.com.