COLUMBIA — After years of being left out of the state’s spending plans for its extra revenue, South Carolina’s roads and bridges are finally getting some additional money. But it isn’t as much as the people who build and maintain the highways or business leaders want.
Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill into law Monday that uses a mix of new revenue from growth, reallocated sales taxes from vehicles and borrowing to raise up to $1 billion over the next 10 years to improve the state’s roads and bridges.
It is far short of the $5 billion to $6 billion a coalition of business groups said is needed just for the most critical projects and doesn’t approach the $30 billion over 20 years the state Department of Transportation estimates it will cost to get all of South Carolina’s roads and bridges to good conditions.
“I think you can count on the fact it is not enough. But it is a great step in the right direction. I am a half-full guy, not a half-empty guy,” DOT Director Robert St. Onge said.
Haley said people need to concentrate on what has been done instead of what was asked for. She said agencies always ask for more money than they need.
“Let’s see what happens. A billion dollars is a lot of money,” Haley said. “I’ve always said a great economy is in a state with a lot of orange cones everywhere.”
South Carolina’s spending on its roads and bridges has been stagnant for years as the state spent money on other priorities, or recently, just tried to survive the Great Recession. The state’s gas tax is unchanged from 1987 at 16 cents a gallon, but there was absolutely no support to raise it or any other taxes.
So the Legislature worked out a compromise.
The spending plan sends $50 million to the State Infrastructure Bank to borrow for major projects. Up to $50 million from this year’s surplus would be used to repair the state’s crumbling bridges, and $41 million from the state sales tax on vehicles would repair secondary roads. Borrowing and federal highway matches could push the total to between $800 million and $1 billion over the next 10 years.
If there’s enough surplus to provide the full $50 million, about 50 bridges statewide would be replaced or rehabilitated.
Some of the most conservative Republicans in the Legislature were against borrowing to pay for roads.
Haley said she didn’t particularly like it either, but it seemed like the best solution since the state is on the verge of paying off a series of bonds that helped pay for education.
“Businesses leverage on what they have to create for the future,” the governor said.
Business leaders rallied for the extra money for roads, saying the state’s crumbling infrastructure might force companies to move or not locate in the state.
At the beginning of this year’s session, a group called the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads urged lawmakers to spend $6 billion over the next 10 to 15 years on the most critical projects statewide: $2.8 billion on interstate widening, $2 billion on bridges and $1.2 billion on resurfacing.
South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance President Lewis Gossett joined several business leaders as the governor signed the bill at the headquarters of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.
“This is a down payment. There is more work to be done,” Gossett said. “But it is a great step forward and it is the first step we’ve seen in many years.”
By the end of the ceremony, Haley was bristling a little at questions about whether the state was spending enough money on roads with the new plan.
“What I am trying to get the people of South Carolina to see is what we do have. And what you saw today is a commitment to infrastructure. That is something we haven’t seen in years,” Haley said. “Let’s celebrate that. Why can’t we just be happy? Because I certainly am.”