Former highway commissioner Johnny Edwards, a leading candidate to take over as head of the state Department of Transportation, says one reason he wants the job is because the Upstate "is due for some influence in Columbia."
That might not be a disqualifying comment for the next transportation secretary, but it certainly demands some further explanation from the governor, who will make the nomination.
Senators who will confirm the governor's nominee ought to be keenly interested as well.
Highway commissioners, who are appointed by districts, can be expected to show favoritism on behalf of their districts. But the head of the DOT has to take an evenhanded approach to the distribution of the agency's limited assets. Indeed, state law requires the DOT to fund projects on a priority, not a parochial, standpoint. That requirement was included in the 2007 reform of DOT to restrict favoritism.
As a former chairman of the highway commission, Mr. Edwards is certainly aware of the competing forces for highway funding, as well as the need for more resources.
In comments to The Greenville News about his potential appointment, Mr. Edwards noted that the Upstate supported Nikki Haley's election as governor in 2010 and consequently "is due for some influence in Columbia, and I think that is what this would be."
Mr. Edwards lives in Travelers Rest in Greenville County.
During his four-year term, which ended last month, the DOT struggled with funding inadequacies for road and bridge construction. At one point in 2011, the DOT wasn't able to provide timely payments to paving contractors.
A 2012 study for the DOT put the 20-year road-funding shortfall at nearly $30 billion. The state gas tax, one of the lowest in the nation, hasn't been increased since 1987.
Nevertheless, Mr. Edwards said he doesn't favor a gas tax hike, and would instead concentrate on using available funds to improve the regular maintenance and repair of roads and bridges.
That's a safe position to take, in view of the governor's stated opposition to a gas tax hike, and the Legislature's long-standing resistance to virtually any tax increase. But the gas tax is more accurately described as a user fee, collected from those who use the road system to pay for its upkeep and improvement. Nevertheless, merely improving the standard of maintenance is a worthy goal, and would take years to accomplish, even with increased assets.
Mr. Edwards isn't the only Upstate leader to cite a regional disparity in the number and cost of road projects, particularly in comparison to the coast. Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, has complained about the difficulty of extracting highway funds for the Upstate, while millions flow to coastal projects.
Part of that disparity is simply based on transportation needs created by growth in the coastal region, and by the added expense of building highways in an area abounding in waterways and wetlands.
But Mr. Peeler, the Senate majority leader, has pointed to Charleston's costly I-526 project as an example, and with some justification, noting that the project failed to make the state priority list.
Of course, as Sen. Peeler has observed, the extension of I-526 was decided by the State Infrastructure Bank, which operates independently of the state highway commission and transportation secretary.
Given the general shortage of highway funding, the Legislature would do well to look at how the SIB manages its considerable assets in any future reform plan.
In his interview with the News, Mr. Edwards raised major topics that deserve review both by the governor and the Senate in the process of naming a new head for the DOT.
Parochialism will always be a problem with the DOT commission, but it can't drive the decisions of the agency's chief executive.
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