“When everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
— Gen. George Patton
The drumbeat for a state gas tax hike is deafening. The S.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Manufacturers’ Alliance support it. So does the state trucking association. Editorials appear almost daily across the state in endorsement.
This level of consensus should send chills down the spines of concerned citizens and taxpayers, especially when the rationale for the tax hike is both specious and deceptive.
No one can dispute the poor condition of our road system. But the proposition that things will improve by imposing one of the largest tax increases in state history is demonstrably wrong. Let’s count the reasons.
To begin with, the S.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) has wildly inflated its financial needs. When asked to calculate the funding “backlog” necessary to bring the system up to standard, the department delivered the figure of $1.5 billion a year over 30 years, for a total of $42 billion. Road advocates have adopted this staggering amount — almost $10,000 for every man, woman and child in South Carolina — as the battle cry for their campaign. Virtually no one has bothered to question publicly what, actually, is included in this number.
The number includes, as it turns out, just about everything. To reach $42 billion, the DOT threw in every boondoggle project conceived in every county in the state, including, but not limited to, the $2.4 billion Interstate 73 project from Rockingham to Conway, the $600 million extension of I-526 to rural Johns Island, and the four-laning of S.C. 51 from Florence to Pamplico (more about this shortly).
The DOT project list is, simply, the mother of all slush funds. Besides padding the books on the amount of money they need, for the past quarter century the DOT and its covert and unruly twin, the S.C. State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB), have failed to spend the considerable resources they already receive on projects that address true state needs. (The DOT budget is now about $1.3 billion annually and the STIB has directed more than $4 billion to projects over its 20-year life). Instead, we’ve gotten bridges to nowhere and miles of massacred trees in interstate medians.
There is a reason for this. It is called politics.
Last week, the House debated a series of amendments that would curb these abuses. It overwhelmingly rejected every single one. Notably, the biggest loser — by a margin of more than 2-1 — was an amendment by Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York, requiring the STIB to prioritize its projects, using the same standards the DOT uses, in contrast to none, which is currently the case. The only amendment that passed was one to add $25 million to a pot of money available for rural areas, from which funding would be exempt from any ranking standards.
To put this is simple terms, the House voted to raise taxes by more than half a billion dollars, but refused to provide even the most modest assurance that the funds would be used effectively.
It’s worth looking under the hood to see how the funding system really works. Consider the proposed four laning of S.C. 51 from Florence to Pamplico. The DOT estimates the project will cost $150 million. In 2007, the STIB committed $250 million to Florence for a package of roads that includes S.C. 51. Then in the summer of 2013, they promised another $90 million, (in spite of the fact that they had no additional bonding capacity until 2036, which is another, related story).
Most of S.C. 51 is now operating at what transportation engineers call “Level of Service A.” By 2030, even with no widening, the DOT predicts it will still operate at Level of Service A. In lay terms, Level of Service A means that a dog can take a 15-minute nap on the center line in complete safety. Nothing in Charleston operates at a Level of Service A (with the possible exception of Longitude Lane).
Yet the STIB squandered more than $100 million dollars to turn a lightly travelled rural byway into a virtual interstate. The reason, again, is simple. The STIB funds what its members choose to fund. The president of the Senate, Hugh Leatherman, from Florence, appoints two members, one of whom is himself.
The story of S.C. 51 is the story of the South Carolina transportation spending — politics has diverted scarce funds from true needs to political boondoggles. The House votes last week demonstrate that the Legislature will fight to keep things that way, as they have for decades.
Anyone who believes that injecting another half a billion tax dollars into the current system will produce a different outcome has simply not been paying attention.
Dana Beach is the executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.