At a recent dinner meeting, state Transportation Commission Chairman Robert D. Robbins and Transportation Secretary Christy Hall were eager to update Greenville Mayor Knox White and then the hundreds of elected leaders gathering in Greenville for the S.C. Municipal Association’s annual convention.
A few years ago, there would not have been much to report from the Department of Transportation folks. But now, Secretary Hall, the respected agency veteran, has a $3 billion projects list related to a diverse 10-year plan she formulated as legislators considered fuel tax increases three years ago. And Robbins wants us to know about the commission’s governance reforms mandated in the 2017 fuel tax increase package. His summary point: This is not your grandfather’s Department of Transportation, nor your great-grandfather’s “Highway Department.”
“We’re doing new things in new ways,” he declares, “apolitically.”
White, Greenville’s mayor since 1995, was impressed. All over the state, motorists are noticing, too. The orange pylons are in place and paving machines are at work, symbols of hope that our state’s highway system is improving. Hall’s segmented planning specifies interstate highway projects and urgent attention to the scary bridges and rural roads where too many deadly accidents have occurred. There’s even nascent thinking about mass transit and pedestrian and cycling accommodations.
Two years into DOT’s fresh funding realities, we’re seeing fresh thinking, too, about accountability and transparency.
That hopefulness, though, is shadowed by a reality that should haunt every South Carolinian: A generation of neglect of the highway system costs lives and treasure. What took us so long to understand the simple realities of public infrastructure, namely that you get what you pay for?
Mayor White said the state’s renewed projects throughout the Piedmont were “conspicuous.” He also noticed the Municipal Association’s annual meeting agenda allotted no time for its members to hear Robbins’ and Hall’s promising updates. So, two days later, when White was introduced to provide the keynote speech, he turned over the podium and some of his speech time to the DOT leaders.
Robbins is a Summerville attorney with a heavy resume of civic service, including on the Charleston Area Transportation Study Policy Committee. He was appointed as the commission’s 1st Congressional District representative in March 2016. Robbins believes the agency’s new “rules and reforms” are as significant as the fresh revenue streams in improving the road system.
“We operate now as a corporate board relying on our professional staff team. I know there are doubters, but political considerations are not factors in our decisions. The strategies and priorities are objective processes. Accountability flows through the governor who appoints the members of this commission. The reforms of 2017 became tools for more responsive operations.”
Robbins tells his audiences that “clarity of priorities” infuses apolitical DOT governance, and that credibility is an arching value. “This redeems the Legislature’s intent and creates public confidence, which is so important when we consider that we have just started to modernize our system; we have a long way to go.”
That’s an understatement. Hall’s $3 billion projects list is about half of the system “needs.” The state fuel tax no longer ranks in the bottom three among the 50 states, but it’s still in the bottom 10. Georgia’s fuel tax ranks 21st. Its 31.6 cents per gallon fuel tax is about 50 per cent higher than South Carolina’s. North Carolina’s levy of 35.4 cents per gallon ranks 14th. Soon enough, the Legislature will consider funding adequacy for a roads and bridges system that must be safe and modern, and competitive for economic development strategies.
It’s good that Robbins and Hall proactively promote DOT’s new beginning. But their road show’s most important point is Chairman Robbins’ about credibility.
Secretary Hall’s 10-year plan and those mandated governance reforms form a test of sorts: to nurture new mindsets among taxpayers and legislators about the imperatives of public infrastructure and the realities of public funding.
Credibility in managing $3 billion in projects and the apolitical governance Robbins describes is a grading key.
Pass this test and public support will evolve to legislative attention.
Pass this test and we just might avoid another tragic and costly generational lapse in commitments to the state’s roads and bridges and other transportation functions befitting an ambitious South Carolina.
Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, is a North Charleston city councilman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.