General Assembly must not duck critical road-funding debate

Traffic streams by as road construction continues on Dorchester Road in between Trolley Road and Bacons Bridge Road Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 in Summerville. (Paul Zoeller/File)

Voters do not trust the General Assembly, and with good reason. We have repeatedly failed to address glaring weaknesses in our state's infrastructure system, and as we return to Columbia it appears the momentum to deal with the issue has been replaced by excuses as to why, once again, we can't address our critical road needs. We choose not to participate in this avoidance.

South Carolina requires a complete and systematic overhaul of the way our Department of Transportation (SCDOT) operates and dedicated funding sources to repair our crumbling transportation network. Concepts are in front of us for comprehensive reform ready for consideration and debate. The citizens of South Carolina demand, and expect, action - not another legislative session of excuses. As we work towards solutions, legislation must be crafted to address three major problems plaguing our state's transportation: a woefully deficient structure of authority and governing boards; a lack of dedicated funds for transportation; and a disproportionally large state-maintained roadway network.

Any consideration of addressing our infrastructure problems must start with SCDOT. The bureaucracy of this agency is second to none. With bureaucracy comes waste, inefficiencies and lack of accountability. We must force SCDOT into a competitive bid process whereby it would be forced to bid against private contractors where appropriate. Free market competition with the private sector will make SCDOT become more nimble and responsive. Going further, we must transition to a design-build process to replace the current low bid system. Design-build will force all stakeholders (local government, property owners, utilities, etc.) to the table at the beginning of the process, helping to mitigate potential delays and cost overruns.

Through agency reform, consideration must be given to the SCDOT highway commission. Reforms must eliminate political influence, and move the decision-making process to one which is fact-based. Ultimately, SCDOT and the governor would be held directly accountable. As we reform boards, the S.C. Infrastructure Bank Board should not be overlooked. This entity must continue to facilitate projects where local communities have stepped up to solve their own problems, as has repeatedly occurred in our region. But in order to be good stewards of limited resources, we must ensure these projects are prioritized within an overall transportation plan, once again removing undue influence.

Any solution to the current woeful condition of our state infrastructure system must also include a new funding source dedicated exclusively to infrastructure. South Carolina annually appropriates a state budget that is approximately $22 billion. Of that total budget, the Legislature controls approximately $7 billion annually, half of which is dedicated to our education system. This leaves roughly $3.5 billion annually to finance all other state government responsibilities. We would favor an appropriate increase in the state's aged motor vehicle fuel user tax and indexing the user fee to inflation. However, we must offset this burden on our citizens by evaluating ways to alleviate other inefficient tax burdens. We must also fight the urge to simplify the discussion by understanding that increasing the motor vehicle fuel tax is not the silver bullet solution to our massive problem.

Finally, we are well aware that South Carolina has a disproportionately high mileage network of "state" roads. In fact, we have the nation's fourth largest system, trailing only Texas, North Carolina and Virginia. SCDOT maintains close to 5,000 miles of roads that are one-fourth of a mile or less in length. A real conversation about the maintenance of secondary roads needs to take place. The state needs to partner with local governments and reward those communities that are willing to step up and share the responsibility of maintaining our neighborhood streets.

We know there are no easy answers. But we also know that avoiding the debate will have catastrophic results. Reform alone, as with revenue increases, will not solve our problems. Our crumbling infrastructure affects everyone, whether it's delayed work commutes, difficultly transporting children to and from school, slowed emergency response, roadway injuries or the movement of trade and commerce. As our population and economy grow we must recognize that quality transportation infrastructure is critical to continuing South Carolina's momentum as a commerce engine and to the quality of life we have all come to appreciate. And we must, once and for all, break the avoidance cycle ... and govern.

Chris Murphy represents District 98 (Dorchester) in the S.C. House. Sean Bennett represents District 38 (Dorchester, Charleston, Berkeley) in the S.C. Senate. Both are Republicans.