Take user-fee turn to safe roads
In his column on last Sunday's Commentary page, Dana Beach made a salient point: Spending priorities for roads and bridges must be reformed in any legislative package that finally increases revenue sources.
But my good friend got his statewide policy issues tangled a bit.
Dana's Coastal Conservation League tenaciously opposes the Interstate 526 extension. Its banner position is that the project simply doesn't warrant priority in spending the state's meager road-funding dollars.
Beach can tick off a projects list he and others consider more critical, like rebuilding I-26 from Summerville to Columbia - before the Port of Charleston doubles truck traffic over the next 10 years, and before more motorists die on its narrow, ill-maintained roadbeds flanked by an untended forest of trees.
But the I-526 project is a discrete public project proposition, involving one-time money and one-off "priority" settings. It raises many policy issues, but it is not the poster argument against the critical needs to raise statewide road funding revenue sources.
Beach also defended Gov. Nikki Haley from an observation that she and many other elected leaders are "trapped" by the dogma that taxes will never be raised anytime for anything.
The governor can speak for herself - and often does.
In her State of the State speech last month, she reiterated her rigid opposition to raising user-based fuel taxes. But at an earlier meeting with mayors, she declared that there will come "a time and a place" to review the state's fuel "taxes." Our governor knows a looming crisis when she sees it, but it's an election year - not a good time to be debating the fuel user fee.
Actually, the governor seems to like what the Legislature did last year when it reluctantly diverted some windfall general fund revenues and applied some artful financing formulas in another kick-of-the road system funding can down the pot-holed legislative road. Kudos to the Legislature and the governor for this initiative.
But is it fair to divert money from classrooms and clinics and law enforcement in preference to users paying more? And, hello, more than 30 percent of those "users" live in other states.
Is this arrangement not a subsidy to those non-South Carolinians funded by us taxpayers at the expense of general fund programs?
How will this sort of ad hoc "monkey dust" policy versus at-pump user-paid fees play on the campaign trail?
And what about the hidden taxes inherent in the road system now being managed in its decline?
South Carolina invests fewer state dollars per highway mile than any other state, and according to the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads, 69 percent of our highway pavement is deficient. Congestion alone costs motorists - and businesses - about $400 million annually. More directly, we South Carolinians on average pay $245 more each year in vehicle repairs because of poor roads.
The alliance concludes that an investment of $15 a month in higher per gallon user fees would create a savings of $720 annually for the average motorist. That's a proposition taxpayers can accept - if given the opportunity.
At a recent S.C. Municipal Leagues legislative conference in Columbia, the dominant topic was road funding revenue sources, and hiking the state's 1987 user-based fuel tax was discussed as an inevitable option. Recent statewide polls that suggest that increasing the 16.75 cents per gallon user fee is gaining motorists' acceptance. North Carolina's fuel levy is 38 cents per gallon, Georgia's is 28 cents. In both states, the fees are indexed to inflation.
The capacity, the conditions and modernity of North Carolina's and Georgia's road systems evidence a commitment and system of building and maintaining roads and bridges that simply doesn't exist in South Carolina. To think we can sustain this competitive disconnect with goals and ambitions jars logic and suggests it's somehow OK to foster a terrible and costly legacy.
Gov. Haley, her predecessors and the Legislature have nurtured an excellent jobs creation record and a dynamic and diversifying economy. But every part of this remarkable economic success story depends on safe and adequate roads, a reality our state simply cannot reconcile long term given its haphazard and cavalier mindset about how the road system will be funded.
Increasing the fuel user fee is not a singular and perfect solution.
But it seems impossible to formulate sufficient long range funding plans without more user-based revenues.
The "no new taxes" dogma clearly grips this critically important public policy issue in Columbia. It's time to supplant it with the ageless and more sturdy dogma that we get what we pay for - and we'll have to pay more the longer we wait to commit to the road system investments our state so clearly needs.
And, yes, Dana Beach, we have to reform the credibility of the priority-setting system for investments in our roads and bridges system.
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston city councilman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org