Beef up road plan and pass it

Potholes on Spring Street downtown in January. (Leroy Burnell/File)

To say that time is running out for a legislative solution on highway funding is no exaggeration. Failure to move a highway funding bill to the head of the line for Senate consideration today could mean that yet another session will end without an answer to the state’s crumbling road system.

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday approved a plan by Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown, to raise the state’s gas tax, double the $300 cap on sales taxes for vehicles and put an annual fee on alternative fuel vehicles that pay comparatively little in gas taxes.

By 2017, the bill would bring in an additional $800 million a year to make badly needed road improvements.

The state Department of Transportation estimates a $40 billion road funding shortfall over the next 25 years. Critics contend that the DOT’s estimate includes costs for projects that aren’t really vital to safety and mobility. And maybe the DOT projections aren’t strictly limited to absolute priorities.

But most who drive on South Carolina highways can see — and feel — the road deterioration for themselves. They pay the hidden tax related to the sad condition of state highways — in ruined tires, worn suspension and accidents caused by inadequate or crumbling roadways.

Some concerns could be addressed by restoring a provision in the Cleary bill to fund only priority projects. The bill should also be amended to address a sunset proviso for the secretary of transportation, allowing the Cabinet officer to continue to administer the department.

Further, the Senate bill needs to include incentives to transfer short stretches of state-maintained roads to local governments, where most belong.

At present, South Carolina has one of the largest state road systems in the nation, and one of the lowest gas taxes to provide for maintenance and improvements. The gas tax hasn’t been raised for more than 25 years.

The Senate bill does not include a provision to reduce the state’s income tax as demanded by Gov. Nikki Haley, as a condition for a gas tax increase. Nor should it.

The Legislature might as well recognize that Gov. Haley’s veto is all but assured, and proceed with a bill that the House and Senate can support in sufficient numbers to ensure an override.

The governor’s opposition to legislative proposals for more DOT funding is surprising, given the necessity of an improved transportation system for continued economic development.

The gas tax serves as a user fee, enabling those who drive on the roads to pay for their upkeep. And that fund is greatly bolstered by tourists and other out-of-state motorists who pay about a third of the total gas taxes in South Carolina.

The need for greater highway funding has been evident for years, and it is past time for the Legislature to come up with a plan to stop the neglect and make needed improvements to the highway system.

The Senate should acknowledge that highway improvements are an essential priority by advancing Sen. Cleary’s proposal today.