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Bailey column: At least Vince Graham isn’t asking all those inconvenient questions any more

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The I-526 onramp at the freeway's terminus at U.S. Highway 17 in West Ashley. Lauren Petracca/Staff

As the Charleston area embarks on the greatest highway building spree in history, I am left considering the mystery of Vince Graham.

The question isn’t why the Charleston developer was fired as chairman of the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank almost three years ago. That’s easy: He was run over by the Highway-Industrial Complex. But, instead, how did such a subversive thinker come to head the state’s deep-pocketed financing agency in such a deep-red state in the first place?

Graham, 55, was Gov. Nikki Haley’s “high risk, high return” pick to head the infrastructure bank in 2015. While best known as the builder of the “new urbanism” I’On community in Mount Pleasant, Graham can also trace the influence of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and Dwight Eisenhower on transportation policy today. He likes to quote James Baldwin and Jesus.

It took Gov. Henry McMaster all of a couple of months to dump him after Haley departed for the United Nations in January 2017. Graham’s mortal sin: not being all in on the Highway of Our Dreams, the $750 million-and-counting extension of Interstate 526. His 10-point plan in December 2016 to unwind the project was like a five-alarm fire for the Charleston political establishment.

In fact, Graham was more than a sinner, he was a dangerous heretic, willing to question not a single highway but the very foundations (and funding) of the Highway-Industrial Complex. His heresy was spelled out in a draft report for the agency’s strategic planning committee just as he was fired.

In the never-published report — “Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?” — Graham set out to quantify the real costs, public and private, of driving in South Carolina. His astonishing conclusion: The average household spent $22,156, or 59 percent of its after-tax annual income, on direct and indirect costs for the state’s automobile transportation system in 2015.

Graham got to this jaw-dropping number after pages and pages of calculations that looked at the direct cost of owning and operating a car, the indirect costs like parking and fines and the costs of deaths, injuries and the like from vehicle accidents.

There’s plenty of room to question Graham’s assumptions — 59 percent of annual household income to drive? — but what’s even more astonishing than the numbers is that the head of the state’s transportation infrastructure bank was taking such a subversive approach to the state’s transportation system. Imagine where that road could lead?

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“Any form of innovation subverts the status quo,” Graham says. “It is really important to look at things differently because you get stuck. And we are stuck.”

We could use a lot more subversive thinking when it comes to the insanely expensive highway system, designed to safeguard every American’s God-given right to sit, alone, in traffic every day. Among Graham’s inconvenient questions:

Do the state Department of Transportation’s policies create misaligned incentives? For example, do they create sprawling development patterns along interstates and arterials? If so, can measures be taken to preclude the kind of “parasitical” development that costs more to service than they produce in taxes?

Are land use policies in counties, municipalities and school districts counterproductive? Do zoning laws, decisions related to schools and other government building locations and transportation funding priorities contribute to or reduce automotive dependence?

Is the current structure with funding provided by state and federal governments distorting local decision making? Does this funding lead to a misallocation of public resources?

“Money makes you stupid,” Graham likes to say.

These are dangerous questions, dangerous, that is, to the financial well-being of the Highway-Industrial Complex, and its enablers in government at every level. Vince Graham lasted all of 18 months, and we are back to widening the roads, and widening them again. It’s worked so well after all.

Steve Bailey can be reached at Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.

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