It is no longer just an inconvenient truth: South Carolina's generally deficient roads and bridges are in a near free-falling crisis, impacting our public safety, our qualities of life, our pocketbooks, and, yes, threatening our strategic economic future. The good news is that polls show that South Carolinians are beginning to understand the dismal realities of bad roads and the imperatives of policy reforms and long-range funding.
But the challenging news is that too many elected leaders remain gripped by an ideology of the illogic - that we can have better roads without paying for them; that the maxim - "you get what you pay for" - somehow doesn't apply to us; that education, law enforcement and social services should subsidize roads and bridges; that everything should be considered except, praise be, the idea that those who use the highway system should pay more.
The highway system crisis in our ambitious state should be a prime topic in the gubernatorial campaign season. Instead we're seeing more political circle-dancing. Gov. Nikki Haley promises she has a plan and will reveal it in January, after her supposed re-election. There are no easy answers and the governor is buying time, confident her principal challenger doesn't have a silver-bullet solution, either.
And maybe even Nikki Haley now understands that a comprehensive solution to the $29 billion, 20-year problem defined by her Department of Transportation likely will include increasing the user fee imposed on fuel sales. She hinted as much last December at a meeting with S.C. mayors: "There will be a time and place when we have to talk about the gas tax."
Her principal challenger, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, is less measured. He declares that as governor he would commit an additional $500 million annually for roads and bridges - without touching the fuel tax. His plan in summary: Siphon 5 percent of general fund revenues or about $350 million annually. Another $150 million annually would somehow be borrowed or found.
First problem - it's about a billion dollars a year short of what DOT says it needs. Perhaps more noticeably, the senator's concept is a dance around the sitting-target option of raising the state's 101-year-old fuel user fee. One of the nation's lowest, it hasn't been increased by thoughtful governance or inflation since 1987. Like Gov. Haley, candidate Sheheen seems cornered by that ideology of the illogic - anything but a user-based "tax increase."
But the senator might consider that his plan, in fact, equates odiously and insidiously to a tax increase. Leeching general fund revenues - incremental or otherwise - diverts dollars from education at all levels, and from law enforcement and social services. It smacks of a simplistic ploy to avoid the semantics of increasing a user fee that should have been increased and indexed many years ago.
Out-of-state motorists pay 35 to 40 per cent of the fuel tax revenues. This verity defines Sen. Sheheen's plan as an illogical subsidy of highway users - including out-of-state motorists - at the expense of education, law enforcement and social services. Higher tuitions at colleges and universities and technical colleges, lower teacher pay, crowded classrooms, fewer state troopers - all to accommodate a dogma of "no new taxes"?
Surely we can do better, folks.
And we'd better, fast. Those hidden costs of inadequate and unsafe roads increase exponentially. And the linkage of adequate roads to our state's economic future can no longer be rationalized.
The Port of Charleston is one of many very good examples. A bold state funding policy will likely assure the deepening of Charleston Harbor shipping channels to 50 feet. This is not just about competition with the Port of Savannah. A deeper harbor and new terminals are strategically important to industrial, commercial and agricultural interests all over our state.
But a world-class seaport depends fundamentally on modern surface transportation infrastructure. Interstate 26 has long been described as an ill-maintained "nightmare."
Now consider that nearly 80 percent of the Port of Charleston's container volumes depend on truck deliveries. And as the port's container volumes double over the next 15 to 20 years, so will truck traffic on Interstate 26.
So while we're talking about avoiding user fee increases and raiding general funds, we're also talking about a 50-year-old nightmare of a highway system providing linkage to a world-class harbor with 50-foot channels.
This spastic high-expectation strategic policy planning just doesn't compute.
And it never will so long as our policy delivery systems are imprisoned by that ideology of the illogic.
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, was president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities from 1979-86 and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans from 1986-2002. A North Charleston city councilman, he can be reached at email@example.com.