For far too long, politics has trumped good public policy when it comes to meeting one of the most important, basic core-government responsibilities — providing safe and efficient roads.
Our elected leaders have been paralyzed by the age-old question: Do we redirect, use growth revenues or raise taxes?
This has failed to position South Carolina for a future that in many respects is already upon us.
Our port is revitalized, we aggressively promote our tourism assets, we’re winning in economic growth and major college athletic programs. Despite the impossibility of separating economic development from growth in travel and freight demand, we have not seen fit to invest in modern roads and bridges.
One glaring dichotomy has our Department of Commerce website touting South Carolina’s advantageous “unparalleled infrastructure,” while the DOT resigns itself to “managing the decline of the state’s highway system.” We’ve become North America’s tire capital, but don’t have adequate road surface on which to run them.
Blame rhetoric and politics for inaction. The recently “restructured” DOT and its commission are mandated to use priorities/science. But the DOT still has critics, as do all government agencies, especially since it is likely the most under-funded in the nation. Then there’s the usual strife of interests like rural vs. urban, I-73 vs. I-526, interstate capacity vs. bridge replacement that stifle progress. (The State Infrastructure Bank is a whole other matter, but it will sort itself out.)
This has created legislative congestion comparable to that which we experience on the roads and highways of South Carolina.
As for politics, truth-in-budgeting and taxation requires eliminating all illegitimate diversions and re-direction of all legitimate vehicle/highway-related fees to their proper place — funding highway programs. Then, smart fiscal-conservatism would focus on how much growth or surplus revenue can be provided for priority capital improvement projects.
These first steps, albeit relatively insignificant considering the tremendous needs, were taken starting with the governor’s budget, and enhanced by the S.C. House of Representatives. Now the Senate has the opportunity to act, and hopefully will further enhance the move towards better roads without “tax increases.”
Once trust is restored, and if revenues are still determined to be inadequate to fund statewide-significant routes, good public policy dictates that users should be willing to accept sensible increases in user-fees. This system of financing highway infrastructure works, and is still good public policy, despite universal demagoguery opposed to raising the state’s comparably low motor fuel user-fee and other license and vehicle fees.
The basic rationale is that road costs continue to escalate, but revenues have not kept up. These statewide-significant assets cannot be maintained on revenues that haven’t changed in 25 years. But that is what we demand of our DOT.
Business and industrial trade groups studied the situation last winter and presented the Legislature a “Road Map to the Future.” Big bucks will be required. Just the most critical strategic-corridor investments alone carry a price tag of $600 million more per year, neglecting other needs around the state. This also falls short of what should be the most important consideration of all — safety.
There is no “easy money” with the cost of adding just one lane-mile of interstate averaging $15 million to $20-plus million. And we can’t count on the federal government anymore.
Tolling existing lanes of interstates is anathema to business, is unpopular with motorists and discriminates against locals. It is generally prohibited by federal law and woefully inefficient. Tolling new capacity is worth considering — with strict analysis.
The lessons of Greenville’s Southern Connector toll-road debacle dictate proper due diligence, like conducting meticulous traffic and revenue projections, objective and unbiased diversion studies, along with dissections of the various impacts associated with any public or private tolling initiative.
Broad-based road-use fees, properly applied, are one of the most successful and, dare we say, popularly supported “tax” systems. We all use and benefit from freeways, but we have to admit they aren’t really “free.”
To begin South Carolina’s re-investment, we urge the Legislature to finish these first steps this year. Then we should be willing to face the truth about paying the price for good roads.
Patrick Barber, a North Charleston trucking and logistics company owner, is chairman of the board of directors of the S.C. Trucking Association. Rick Todd is the association’s president and chief executive.
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