In Sunday's Post and Courier, Ron Brinson asks whether the funding shortage plaguing South Carolina's highway system can now be termed a crisis. He answers with a resounding "yes," and castigates Gov. Haley and the General Assembly because they failed to "formulate sufficient long range funding," by which he means, "raise the gas tax."
Brinson is correct that our state highway system is declining because of a lack of investment in maintenance, repair and congestion relief. But underlying the revenue crisis is a more fundamental problem. It is a crisis of trust - precipitated by the persistent abuse and misdirection of transportation dollars by political insiders, subverting the legitimate transportation needs of the state, its citizens and its businesses.
South Carolinians who follow transportation issues are deeply and justifiably skeptical - actually, incredulous - that additional transportation dollars will be spent more effectively, with less political manipulation, than the hundreds of millions of dollars they have contributed over the past few decades. The evidence is indisputable and damnable.
The poster children for the misuse of taxpayer dollars are I-73 from Rockingham, N.C., to Conway and the extension of I-526 to Johns Island. Neither project is a state priority. Both have advanced through backroom deals and political arm-twisting. Their total cost is roughly $3 billion - more than double the state's annual transportation budget.
The skepticism doesn't stop with these high profile boondoggles. A few years ago, The Post and Courier revealed that the S.C. Department of Transportation had received $15.5 million in federal funding for Safe Routes to Schools. In 2007, they identified 24 projects. Four years later, the DOT had completed just one of the 24.
Obstructionism and foot-dragging also characterize the DOT's involvement in local transportation improvements. The agency initially blocked the construction of the successful roundabouts in Mount Pleasant. Most recently, DOT staff objected to an extensively reviewed and studied congestion relief project for Maybank Highway on Johns Island - a proposal which had, almost miraculously, received unanimous support from residents, developers, Charleston County and the city of Charleston.
But the DOT does not deserve all of the blame for our declining roads. In response to the maintenance backlog, the DOT Commission voted two years ago to require regional Councils of Government (like the Charleston Area Transportation Study Commission) to spend a minimum of 20 percent of "Guideshares" revenue maintaining existing roads. The local agencies vigorously objected, and the commission reversed its position this year, thus removing even modest restraints on the spending abuses that have driven the state to the current crisis point.
The most malignant flaw in the system, and the reason no additional tax should be levied until it is exorcized, is the South Carolina State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB). Unlike any other state in the nation, South Carolina has one agency responsible for maintaining and improving the road system, the DOT, and a separate, shadow agency, the STIB, controlling the money for major projects.
The DOT Commission consists of one member from each Congressional District, appointed by the district's legislative delegation, and one at-large appointee. This may not be ideal, but it is a model of good government compared to the STIB.
The STIB board is controlled by two people - the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate. Between the two, they appoint the majority of the board members. Collectively, these two officials represent less than 3 percent of the state's voters. Democracy, this is not.
If anyone is laboring under the illusion that these infractions are old news, a review of this year's legislative session should dispel that impression. Two bills introduced in the House of Representatives this year would have modestly improved objectivity and accountability in transportation spending. The first would have required the STIB to spend money on state transportation priorities, not on the pet projects of board members and their allies. The second would have required the DOT to perform cost/benefit analyses on construction projects - like a business, or a federal agency, would do.
Neither bill saw the light of day. Charleston House members supporting the I-526 extension killed the cost/benefit bill. No hearing was scheduled on the prioritization bill.
Looming over the failure of transportation reform this session, and directly related to it, was the demise of ethics legislation. The Legislature's unwillingness to curb systemic abuses of power speaks volumes about their capacity to deploy additional transportation dollars effectively and without bias.
The machinery that drives South Carolina's transportation investment is not the product of random chance. Every piece of it was carefully crafted to benefit the people who control it. Ron Brinson is right that it's high time to address the problem a declining road system. But before adding a penny more in tax revenue, the crisis of trust must be resolved by eliminating the corruption in the spending process.
Dana Beach is executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.
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