DOT must take steps to help itself, too

Shortfalls in state funding continue to fuel road problems and a rising number of traffic jams like this one on I-26. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

More funding for the state Department of Transportation has been at the top of this year’s legislative agenda, recognizing the worsening condition of South Carolina’s roads and bridges. A comprehensive report on the DOT by the Legislative Audit Council underscores that point — highway infrastructure has gotten significantly worse in just the last six years. And the audit recognizes that the agency doesn’t have adequate funds to make the necessary improvements.

But the LAC report cites numerous shortcomings that the DOT itself could address on its own to ensure that its limited funds are spent in the most productive manner. For example, the audit finds that the DOT has failed to live up to the standards mandated under the 2006 reform legislation, requiring it to list projects on a priority ranking and fund them accordingly. And the agency hasn’t kept that list updated to reflect current conditions, the LAC concluded.

Nor has the DOT always taken the most efficient route to maintain and repair crumbling roadways. The difference in cost for repairing a road that is listed as needing “preservation” and one requiring “reconstruction” is nothing short of phenomenal. The first costs $21,900 a mile and the second $188,000. Allowing roads to decline into a terminal state of disrepair is dangerous to drivers and painful for the DOT’s maintenance budget.

The LAC also questions the oft-repeated estimate of the annual $1.4 billion shortfall in road funding needs, cited by the DOT. The figure is based on “a large number of assumptions, some of which have become less accurate in the time since the estimate was made.” Clearly a more accurate measure is required as the DOT seeks additional funding to bring state roads and bridges up to an acceptable standard of safety and utility.

The LAC does acknowledge that the current level of funding is woefully inadequate. While revenues have increased by 12 percent over the last 10 years, they haven’t kept pace with inflation, 34 percent over the same period. And it questions whether a simple gas tax increase can do the job. It cites the need for a mixture of new revenue, possibly to include surcharges on insurance premiums, alternative or electric vehicle user fees, fees on vehicle miles traveled and rental car fees.

It does not, however, recommend giving the agency more money from the general fund, as the Legislature is preparing to do.

Of course, none of those other revenue sources has the additional benefit of getting a 30 percent contribution from out-of-state motorists, as does the gas tax. The state’s gas tax, one of the nation’s lowest, hasn’t been raised since 1987.

The audit concludes that the DOT’s agency’s awkward form of governance — the Legislature picks most of the highway commissioners and the governor selects the secretary of transportation — results in a lack of direction, performance and accountability. A plan approved by the Senate last month would change that system by giving the governor responsibility for the selection of the commission, which would choose the secretary of transportation.

The audit findings should inform the House as it continues its work on DOT funding and reform.

But many of the recommendations, such as improving the priority list and using maintenance dollars to better effect, can be undertaken within the confines of the agency. And while the agency balks at the LAC’s criticism on priority rankings, it has already endorsed some of the ideas in the audit.

Since the DOT is operationally a Cabinet agency, Gov. Nikki Haley should provide DOT oversight as needed on intra-agency improvements.

There is no question that the DOT needs more resources, and it can make the best case for legislative support toward that end by improving its own track record to the extent fiscally possible.