Don't raise gas tax: The money's in the bank
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey recently announced that he supports an increase in the state gas tax because there isn't enough money to fund road improvements for Boeing's expansion.
In the Feb. 2 Post and Courier, my friend Ron Brinson argues for the same, praising Florence Sen. Hugh Leatherman's recent support of higher gas taxes. Ron takes Gov. Nikki Haley to task for threatening to veto any increase, accusing her of being trapped by her "no new taxes" pledge.
Their arguments revolve around a simple, but unsupportable, assumption. For the sake of discussion, let's grant that cost of maintaining and upgrading the state's transportation system exceeds current available revenues. The fiction that Brinson, Summey and Leatherman want us to believe is that higher taxes would actually be spent on fixing real transportation problems, instead of being squandered on the pet projects of powerful politicians.
The evidence overwhelmingly suggests otherwise. For the past 20 years, the S.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) and its little-known shadow agency, the S.C. State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB), have diverted billions of dollars away from state priorities toward projects that are unnecessary or unimportant.
To understand how this works, consider the proposed Boeing roads. There is, in fact, already more than enough money to cover Boeing's needs. But Mayor Summey, along with North Charleston's two Charleston County Council members, Elliot Summey and Teddie Pryor, have voted and lobbied to delay these and other important improvements so that the county can instead spend $556 million extending I-526 to Johns Island. That project does not appear on the state's list of transportation priorities. It ranks 15th on the tri-county region's priority list, behind key, but unfunded, work on I-26. Two-thirds of the citizens who commented on it during the first phase of the environmental review opposed it. The massive project has not received a single environmental permit.
For this reason, the money for I-526, $420 million of which is literally in the bank, will accomplish nothing for years to come but drain taxpayer dollars in interest costs. In spite of this, a year and a half ago, Mayor Summey spoke in strong support of this diversion of scarce road dollars stating, "It has to be done for the good of all the citizens of Charleston County."
On first glance, it seems inexplicable that the mayor of North Charleston and the city's two representatives on County Council would persistently advocate for a road that will benefit neither the state nor their constituents. The reason, however, consists of just two words - Bobby Harrell.
Rep. Harrell has been the primary advocate for extending I-526 to Johns Island. As speaker of the House of Representatives, he has two appointments to the board of the STIB, which provides funding for major transportation projects. In that capacity, and using his influence as speaker, he has ensured that the 526 extension received preference over other projects of statewide importance, Boeing roads included. We have spoken candidly to dozens of leaders in the South Carolina economic development community about regional and state transportation needs. Not one believes the 526 extension should be funded over I-26 investments. But like Mayor Summey, and like council members Summey and Pryor, they are afraid to challenge Speaker Harrell on the issue.
For the same reason, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce has consistently lobbied in favor of I-526 with the full knowledge that in doing so, they are pushing key economic development investments on I-26 to the back of the funding line, to the detriment of many of their own members.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms has been one of the few leaders to publicly condemn I-526. In October of last year, he said, "I believe that there are higher priority projects in Charleston County than the extension of I-526 and that State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) projects should also be subject the prioritization ranking of Act 114. ... Under Act 114, the 526 extension would fall behind other projects."
South Carolina's road system is, indeed, in bad shape. But the neglect is not the result of a lack of money. It is the product of a funding structure designed to be manipulated by powerful insiders. Pouring good money after bad by raising the gas tax without reforming that system would represent a massive failure of leadership.
The solution, as Sen. Grooms suggests, is to change the law so that it requires all transportation dollars, existing or new, be dedicated to projects objectively determined to be key state priorities, starting with maintenance and repair.
Dana Beach is executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.