"I will be for a gas tax increase; if we don't do it, the highways will continue to crumble."

- S.C. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman

BY RON BRINSON

Good for Sen. Leatherman. He's bringing his leadership to a place too many elected state leaders fear to tread - the practical need to raise South Carolina's fuel tax, or as Sen. Leatherman noted, "It's a user fee; that's what I would call it."

Actually, the levy is generally codified as a "fee." It was initiated as an economic development tool in 1913 and through most of the 20th century it was just that. But against the pressures of inflation, higher uses and economic development requirements, the fuel user fee has inexplicably not been raised from its 16.75 cents per gallon level in 27 years. It is a public policy imperative lost in a thicket of taxing dogma and ideology. And South Carolinians are beginning to notice the costly downsides of the proposition, you get what you pay for.

But Gov. Nikki Haley, our state's economic development salesman-in-chief, has promised - once again - to veto any legislation that would raise this levy.

"Forcing our people and our businesses to pay more for the simple act of getting around, is not an option for me," Haley said in her Jan. 22 State of the State.

What the governor and Sen. Leatherman surely must agree on, though, is that modernizing and expanding highway capacities is a never-ending public policy mandate for any progressive state. Right?

And that a succession of governors and the General Assembly have simply let this reality morph into a looming crisis. And that the funding shortfall - provided by Gov. Haley's Department of Transportation - is $29 billion over the next 20 years. And that the summary challenge is how to raise those funds, fairly and systematically.

Anyway but a fuel user fee or "tax" increase, the governor seems to be saying.

It's pretty much impossible to provide what our state needs without increasing the fuel user fees, counter Sen. Leatherman, R-Florence, and a growing number of his legislative colleagues.

Leatherman seems ready to at least try to elevate recurring highway funding sources to a policy priority. "The economy is the key to all growth goals for our state," he says. "South Carolina is blessed with a productive workforce. We're building on sectors like automotive, agriculture, higher technology, and now, aerospace. The Port of Charleston plays a role in all of these strategies, but the port doesn't work without adequate highways. Our long-term goals will always be challenged without safe and adequate highways and bridges. We have to invest and invest heavily to have the highway system we need over the long term."

Through recent statewide polls and town hall meetings with legislators, South Carolinians are signaling they notice that the state road system is shamefully inadequate. And they're noticing, too, the better roads in North Carolina, where the fuel levy is 37.5 cents a gallon, and also in Georgia, where the fee is 28.45 cents a gallon. This trend seemed inevitable.

Our state's road system was once considered among the most progressive in the nation. Today, it's a network of too many unsafe "killing fields" segments, too many bridges and overpasses overdue for upgrades. It's a network of growing congestion, especially in urban areas. It's a network of potholes that engender more and more costly damage claims for the S.C. Department of Transportation. It's a bottom line of higher and higher costs for taxpaying motorists in terms of time delays and vehicle maintenance repairs.

In 1986, Sen. Leatherman was the floor leader for legislation that last raised the fuel user fees to 16 cents per gallon. And now, as Finance Committee chairman, he sits at the apex of state budgeting and appropriations functions. He's active in economic development initiatives like the Boeing deals and assuring front-end funding for the pending Charleston Harbor deepening project. The senator and many of his colleagues are seeing the reality of inadequate highways in terms of a state otherwise so ambitious and fully committed to social and economic development strategies.

Gov. Haley understands this disconnect as well, but she seems bracketed by her adamant "no new taxes" pledges. "Trapped" might be a better term, especially in this campaign season. What seems certain is that she will have to explain how she intends to fund our state's projected $42 billion of documented highway system needs over the next 20 years without increasing the user fee.

A good answer to that would trump the argument of so many that, well, there is no good answer to that.

Ron Brinson is a former associate editor of this newspaper and a North Charleston city councilman. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.