Seek nearly painless gas tax hike

(Wade Spees/File)

Charleston drivers aren’t just paying less at the gas pump than they were this time last year. They are paying the lowest prices in the nation, according to a recent report by a California survey company.

That report and data collected by Gasbuddy.com show prices dropping across the nation, with South Carolina among a few states with average prices below $2 per gallon. Most analysts expect further declines going into the fall and winter.

To be sure, prices in that range have been a windfall to millions of motorists in this state. Drivers could save hundreds of dollars a year.

As pump prices dip toward the lowest levels in seven years and prospects for sustained low prices remain strong, it’s a good time to consider raising the state’s gas tax to make much needed road repairs and improvements.

Despite months of debate this year at the Statehouse, South Carolina legislators couldn’t agree on a plan that would fund the nearly $1.5 billion annual shortfall the state Department of Transportation expects over the next 30 years.

The gas tax has long been the primary source of state revenue for the DOT, but it hasn’t kept pace with the state’s highway needs. Even basic maintenance for roads and bridges isn’t being done because of a lack of funding. Local governments have been forced to use local revenues to take up some of the slack.

Meanwhile, South Carolina’s gas tax is among the lowest in the nation and hasn’t been increased since 1987.

It just doesn’t add up.

Every time prices at the pump drop, the argument against a modest increase to the state gas tax gets weaker. Even a dramatic increase in the tax wouldn’t raise average prices to those people paid just one year ago.

And the consequences of doing nothing are dire. South Carolina’s infrastructure is aging rapidly even as its population expands and the number of tourists increases. Bringing roads and bridges back up to par gets significantly more expensive each year that state leaders fail to propose a feasible solution for demonstrable road needs and overdue maintenance.

The Legislature should seize the opportunity to provide a regular, dedicated source of additional revenue for take care of the state’s roads and bridges. The economic well-being of the state and public safety demand it.