It seems impossible to overstate South Carolina’s highway system challenges. In a state so ambitious economically and socially, roads and bridges problems are morphing toward crisis.
All of us — men, women and children — use the highway system, and most of us now understand that system’s urgent needs.
We understand, too, the price of neglect and cavalier public policies — too many lost lives, too much lost time on congested roadways, and the personal money we lose each year because of bad roads.
Creative legislative initiatives to assure adequate highway system funding seem lost in a fog of dogma and ideology — like “no new taxes, anytime for anything.” That has trapped classic user fees, such as the state’s 100-year-old fuel levy stuck at 16.5 cents per gallon of gasoline since Jan. 1, 1987.
It’s Neroism at play right before our eyes; dogma-induced inertia trumping urgently needed infrastructure; political fiddling tuning a mounting crisis. Is this tiring debate really about rational funding for an alarming backlog of maintenance and development projects, or is it now merely about holding to political ideological themes?
What’s certain is we’re about 20 years behind the maintenance and development curve. To catch up within 20 years, we need to spend $1.4 billion annually more than we’re spending now. Every year the Legislature kicks the can down the pot-holed political road that number grows — and our generation further squanders a legacy of good roads priming statewide development.
A comprehensive solution likely would involve an array of funding sources. But unless the “tooth fairy” has a cousin named “road,” the user-based levies on fuel will have to be raised. The folks who use state roads for a living get it. The S.C. Trucking Association has become the most consistent advocate for comprehensive reform of funding and, as necessary, raising the fuel levies.
Now it seems that we regular motorists are getting it, too.
A recent Winthrop University poll concludes that 50.5 percent of South Carolinians would support a reasonable increase in the fuel user fees; 47 per cent would oppose it. That’s a bare-bottom majority, but the results are trending positively.
Three legislators and Lt. Gov.Glenn McConnell saw this changing attitude last month at a town hall meeting in Summerville. About 10 minutes into the well-attended forum, a resident asked, “Our roads are getting pretty bad out there; what do you see as the solution?”
McConnell, Reps. Jenny Horne and Chris Murphy, and Sen. Sean Bennett — to their credit — didn’t duck behind the bleachers of dogma. They spoke candidly about road funding realities.
They confirmed the urgency and the $29 billion “size” of the problem and then led an interactive discussion about various revenue sources for road system funding — raising the ultra-low $300 sales tax limit on vehicle purchases, using general fund appropriations, structuring bonded debt-financing and the user-based fuel levies.
McConnell said he worried about using the general fund for road funding, describing such initiatives as “the elephant getting his nose in a tent where an elephant does not belong; it just isn’t good for the long run.”
Bennett seemed to disagree, saying the problem’s broadening scope requires that all logical and rational funding sources should be considered. The freshman senator also made the important point that jobs creation depends fundamentally on adequate and well-maintained highway infrastructure.
The dialogue eventually got to the crunch issue — increasing user-based fuel levies. One man said he purchased gasoline a few days earlier in North Carolina at a price just four cents more per gallon than the posted prices at South Carolina stations near Spartanburg. But North Carolina’s user-based fuel tax is 21 cents a gallon more that South Carolina’s. Another attendee remarked, “That makes no sense, when you realize North Carolina has better roads than ours.”
The audience was asked to raise their hands if they would support the concept of raising user-based fuel levies and pegging them to inflation. About 100 folks attended the forum and about 80 indicated their support. McConnell, Bennett, Horne and Murphy seemed surprised — and a bit relieved.
Here’s hoping many more such constructive town hall meetings will take place all over the state — with urgency. Elected leaders who can’t seem to navigate past the legislature’s self-induced inertia might get a message of political comfort.
And that message would be that we South Carolinians can discern the differences of taxes and user fees, that we understand that we get the roads system we pay for, and that these days it simply is not nearly enough to sustain our ambitions of economic growth and our values of public safety and convenience.
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, was president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities 1979-1986, and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans 1986-2002. A North Charleston city councilman, he can be reached at email@example.com.
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