BY SEAN M. BENNETT
If there is ever an issue that unites us all, it is our frustration with our crumbling and congested road network. Over the last four years, much of my time in the General Assembly has been spent studying the problem and developing a solution. Due to the sheer scope of the crisis, it became clear that we must inject additional dedicated funds into the system.
Knowing these funds would ultimately come from the taxpayers, and that money alone is never a solution, it was essential to first ensure we were good stewards of the road funds we were already collecting and expending.
As a starting point, several of my colleagues and I ordered audits of both the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) and the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB). As a result of these audits, many important reforms to the agencies and their processes have been implemented.
As with any large organization, clear lines of authority are crucial. Therefore, efforts were made to streamline SCDOT by clarifying the roles of both the Secretary of Transportation and the S.C. Highway Commission. The Commission is now statutorily responsible for long-term transportation system planning, while the secretary is responsible for day-to-day operations of the department. The lines of authority were also made more accountable by pacing the selection and removal of members of the commission in the hands of the governor. Finally, term limits were placed on the commissioners themselves.
In 2007, Act 114 was put in place to guide the expenditures of highway funds by establishing an objective ranking system to create a priority list of road projects. The criteria used to assemble the list include financial viability, public safety, potential for economic development, traffic volume and congestion, truck traffic, pavement quality index, environmental impact, alternative transportation solutions, and consistency with local land use plans. The method has served the state well, particularly given the limited resources available to our broken road system.
However, a significant flaw in Act 114 is that projects funded by the STIB were exempt from the prioritization process.
Last year’s legislative efforts corrected this error by requiring STIB projects to utilize the same prioritization process, and requiring projects to be submitted to SCDOT before funding approval. These efforts are essential to align all potential projects with the State Transportation Infrastructure Plan (STIP) and thus reducing waste, and limiting undue influence.
In addition to the structural improvements to SCDOT and the project approval process, it was clear to me that due to the complexity of the funding and expenditures within SCDOT, improvements to financial monitoring were also crucial. To improve transparency and eliminate any appearance of conflicts of interest, the internal auditing functions of SCDOT were transferred to the Office of the State Auditor.
While I believe the reforms mentioned here and passed by the General Assembly are meaningful, internal reforms within the agency itself have the potential to be far more impactful.
SCDOT leaders agreed and have enacted many internal reforms. These efforts include increased transparency, improved metrics and measurement techniques, streamlined operations, additional checks and balances, and more. To date, nearly 100 separate policy and/or operational changes have been made within the agency with still others being contemplated.
So, as a result of concerted efforts, the following have been accomplished:
• Independently audited the South Carolina Department of Transportation
• Independently audited the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank
• Streamlined accountability of SCDOT by clarifying that long-range transportation planning is the responsibility of the commission while day-to-day operations are the responsibility of the secretary of transportation
• Placed term limits on commissioners
• Improved the line of accountability by placing commissioner appointment and removal powers in the hands of the governor
• Required STIB to abide by Act 114 prioritization criteria
• STIB projects must be reviewed by SCDOT for alignment with state infrastructure plan
• Transferred internal auditing functions to the state auditor
• Implemented scores of internal agency reforms.
While a necessary first step, these efforts alone will not solve our problems nor fix our crumbling roads. It is now time to turn our attention to funding the massive needs that reform alone cannot accomplish. I look forward to sharing a fair and efficient way to achieve this goal in the weeks ahead.
Sean Bennett is a Republican senator representing Dorchester, Charleston and Berkeley Counties.