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Fix transportation funding before raising taxes

Fix transportation funding before raising taxes

Traffic backs up on Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley. (Wade Spees/File)

Failing bridges, roads in disrepair, mounting costs and a shortfall of cash are just a few of the transportation challenges that South Carolina currently faces.

In his Oct. 19 op-ed, state Sen. Paul Campbell argued that we have daunting highway needs and asserts that the state has no long-term plan for how to comprehensively fund them.

He's right. Our transportation funding system is broken.

Sen. Campbell's solution to the problem, which he laid out two days later at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's infrastructure panel, is to raise the gas tax by 10 cents this year.

That's not going to fix it.

While identifying ways to generate additional revenue is one component of a comprehensive solution to maintain and improve the transportation system, raising taxes alone, even by three times the amount Sen. Campbell suggests, would still be inadequate to fund the litany of pressing road projects statewide. It would only continue to pour money into a broken transportation funding system.

In August, SCDOT released its analysis of transportation funding needs, identifying a mind-bending $42 billion funding shortfall over the next 25 years. That comes to almost $24,000 for each and every household in the state.

What is not included in the SCDOT report is any assignment of priority among the various needs. The report offers no guidance on which projects would be worked on first or which would not be worked on at all if the Department fails to secure the entire $42 billion. In other words, the report proposes a slush fund of astronomical proportions that would be spent at the discretion of the (very few) politicians who control it.

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While SCDOT itself is required by Act 114 of 2007 to prioritize state projects, its little-known, autonomous funding agency, the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank (SCTIB) is not required to fund projects based on this ranking system. Thus, SCDOT does not have the legal authority to fund the state's most vital projects, nor the political clout to call wasteful projects what they really are - diversions of scarce taxpayer dollars to the pet projects of a few powerful politicians. The construction of I-73 and extension of I-526 are two perfect examples of spending billions of dollars on boondoggle highway projects that are both unnecessary and wasteful. Despite the fact that neither has been ranked as a statewide priority, at $2.4 billion and $600 million, respectively, these two projects account for $3 billion of the transportation backlog. Who knows how many other pork barrel projects are included in the estimate.

All of those funding decisions made by the SCTIB are actually made by a seven-member board. The majority of that board is appointed by just two people - one, a senator (the president pro tempore, Hugh Leatherman, from Florence, who currently sits on the board himself); the other a member of the House (the speaker - formerly Bobby Harrell, prior to pleading guilty to six counts of illegal use of campaign funds). Collectively, they represent less than 3 percent of the voters in the state, yet they control billions of dollars in new construction and repair and maintenance funding.

So to recap, the agency named to oversee South Carolina's transportation agenda does not actually have the ability to control the bulk of that agenda.

Instead it must defer to a politically appointed body with no legal mandate to prioritize project funding. Clearly, our transportation funding system is dysfunctional, and excising additional taxes without reform is not only illogical, it is irresponsible. Sen. Campbell and our elected leaders should stop focusing on funding a broken system that perpetuates old-fashioned political strong-arming in Columbia, and instead focus on restructuring, reforming and reinventing our transportation funding system before taxpayers waste another cent funding unnecessary and wasteful projects.

The first step to accomplish this is requiring that the SCTIB use a transparent, systematic and data-driven prioritization process for funding major transportation projects in the state. Projects should be evaluated and ranked based on merit through a non-politicized analysis of objective criteria, including existing and future conditions, the benefits each project is expected to provide, and how each project fits in with local priorities.

Now more than ever, South Carolina needs true leaders who exercise creativity and political courage to address the root of our transportation funding problems, rather than those who revert immediately to antiquated measures of injecting more of our hard-earned tax dollars into a defunct system - because only when our elected leaders make transportation funding reform a true priority, will taxpayers be inclined to faithfully invest in the system.

Myles Maland is the land use project manager of the Coastal Conservation League.

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