Gov. Nikki Haley used her "State of the State" address last week to send a message that she stood firmly against raising the gas tax.
Haley said she would veto any bill that raises the gas tax, a day after the head of the South Carolina Department of Transportation told a House subcommittee that his agency faces a $29 billion shortfall for repairs. Secretary of Transportation Robert St. Onge said the agency estimates that $48.3 billion is needed to repair the state's roads during the next 20 years, but the agency expects to have only about $19 billion in its coffers.
Despite the $29 billion shortfall, St. Onge and his staff were met with criticism by members of the subcommittee, with Rep. Bill Hixon, R-N. Augusta, saying that he hopes the agency's staffers find "the book of common sense."
"Our interstate is unraveling," said Hixon at the meeting. "I want to help you with some solutions."
St. Onge said after the meeting that he doesn't know what he can do without more money being allocated to the agency, but he said it wasn't his job to tell lawmakers how to raise the money.
"All I can do is tell you what the needs are," he said. "You can't make this all turn around and look pretty unless you have some resources."
Hixon provided ideas for getting "the best bang for our buck," such as using state prisoners to pick up garbage from the side of the state's highways.
The president of the South Carolina Trucking Association said that raising the gas tax seems like the only option to help improve roads.
"That's going to be the best source of revenue for probably the next generation," said Rick Todd, president of the association. "This is our generation's challenge."
South Carolina's gas tax is among the lowest in the nation, at 16 cents a gallon. In 2013 the Palmetto State came in as No. 1 in the nation for the lowest gas prices for the second year in a row, according to a report by AAA.
Todd said he doesn't expect any lawmaker to take on the issue during the 2014 election cycle, and he said he wasn't surprised at Haley's declaration, since her predecessors have done the same.
Todd said other cash-generating options are limited, such as driver's license fees. And because the decision to find ways to cover road repairs has been delayed for so long, Todd said he believes lawmakers have backed themselves into a corner.
More than 60 percent of South Carolina's roads are maintained by the state, according to the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads. Though some municipalities have been forced to repair state-owned roads, permanently taking over their maintenance is a different story, said Bill Taylor, field manager for the S.C. Municipal Association.
"Simply saying 'Take over these roads and maintain them from this point on, but we're not giving you any dollars to back it up,' I think that's a concern that all of us have," Taylor said. "Most of the cities are going to shy away from that."
That's why Todd said he believes South Carolina should follow the lead of other states and raise the gas tax.
"There's plenty of blame to go around," said Todd of the delays. "But the public is going to have to say it's time."
Reach Cynthia Roldan at (843) 708-5891.