BY CHRISTOPHER B. FRASER
Elected officials across the state are calling for an increase of the motor fuel user fee, and the business community agrees. From the Upstate to the Lowcountry, our state's roads and bridges are in dire need of repair and expansion to address congestion, commerce and safety.
Our state highway system, the fourth largest state-maintained system in the country, is currently staring at a $30 billion need. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, more than 40 percent of South Carolina's roads are in poor or mediocre condition. Additionally, 1,981 of the state's 9,271 bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
South Carolina's current motor fuel user fee - 16.75 cents per gallon - is the third lowest in the country. In FY 2012, this fee generated $558 million, according to the state Department of Revenue. The American Petroleum Institute puts the national average for state motor fuel user fees at 31.32 cents per gallon. If South Carolina were to adjust its motor fuel user fee to equate to the national average, income generated would nearly double, doubling our capacity to repair, improve and expand our infrastructure.
In a Feb. 9 column,"Don't raise the gas tax," Dana Beach of the Coastal Conservation League advocated against raising this fee for the first time in over 27 years. Beach also once again attacked the completion of I-526. He argues that, should the motor user fuel fee be increased, the income generated would be spent on frivolous, unnecessary projects, using the completion of I-526 as an example.
Planning for this critical infrastructure project originated in the mid-1960s. At that time, leaders from Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties highlighted the Charleston Inner Belt Freeway, now known as I-526, in the Charleston Area Transportation Study (CHATS). The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Charleston Inner Belt Freeway was approved by the Federal Highway Administration in May, 1972. The 8-mile segment of the project that Beach refers to as an "extension," has been a priority for nearly five decades. Claiming that the completion of I-526 is not a top priority is simply untrue.
Beach also criticizes the long length of time it takes for major projects to come to fruition. He claims that S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) funding will "accomplish nothing for years to come but drain taxpayer dollars in interest costs." Ironically enough, Beach's own organization, the Coastal Conservation League, plays a major role in delaying the progress of such projects. In fact, Beach has personally promised to stall the completion of I-526 with litigation.
Among other points Beach tries to emphasize is public opposition to the project. He claims that a majority of citizens who submitted public comment during the first phase of the environmental review process opposed the project. However, Beach fails to mention the scientific survey commissioned by the S.C. Department of Transportation (SCDOT) and conducted by the University of South Carolina's prestigious Moore School of Business in September, 2012. The results of the survey, which questioned participants living in the area most affected by the project, showed that more than 72 percent of respondents favored the project while only 27.8 percent opposed. The citizens in our region are united behind the completion of I-526 as are the majority of our elected officials and the business community.
Beach also incorrectly claims that the completion of I-526 has delayed and diverted funds from key projects, such as the airport area road improvements. To the contrary, the airport road project is progressing as it should. A public introduction meeting is scheduled for March 4 in which the county will present early planning information and goals. In fact, Charleston County has already secured just over $89 million in special source revenue bonds to finance the design and construction of an extension to South Aviation Avenue, part of the $172 million in scheduled Charleston airport road improvements.
Beach asserts that South Carolina's current budget should adequately fund its infrastructure needs. While it would be nice if that were true, it's simply not feasible. If we took every cent of the approximately $7 billion each year in state-controlled funds and sacrificed funding for education, social services, entitlements, etc., we still wouldn't be able to meet today's infrastructure needs until at least 2018.
The problem that exists in our state has more to do with the amount of funding available, not the process in which to apply for funding. In South Carolina, infrastructure projects can be funded several different ways. SCDOT is mandated by Act 114 of 2007 to prioritize all projects across the state based on several criteria in order to be given state dollars. SCDOT is doing just that. The S.C. State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB), which Beach referred to as a DOT's "little known shadow agency," was created so that major infrastructure projects could be funded in the state via community application and match funding. And the bank is doing just that. No community, city, county or region is precluded by either the DOT or the STIB funding process. In other words, equal opportunity exists for all projects.
The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, along with the statewide business community, will continue to advocate for an increase to the motor fuel user fee as well as critical infrastructure projects like the completion of I-526, in an ongoing effort to advance our region. Our Chamber has developed a list of 18 infrastructure priorities in our region. It's time to stop blocking and start tackling the infrastructure needs of our region.
Christopher B. Fraser is chairman of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, and a principal/managing director of South Carolina Avison Young, a real estate firm.