Stop dodging road-funding duty

Construction slows traffic on Dorchester Road in Summerville last March. (Wade Spees/File)

When it comes to highway system funding crises, South Carolina is not alone. Many states are wrestling with major funding shortfalls and many are embracing creative new approaches to funding investments in roads and bridges, and mass transit.

And as this new year begins, motorists in five states are paying higher fuel taxes and user fees, even as fuel prices are moving lower - Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida.

But South Carolina is alone and in the back of the pack among states hustling to formulate road funding solutions.

Now House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, has dampened what were growing hopes that the Legislature would finally act on road funding issues in 2015.

"I would not foresee that being done this year," Lucas said in Greenville Monday.

The urgency aside, the speaker offered a reasonable explanation.

The issues that define the crisis are complicated, he said, noting the work of the legislative panel he organized last fall. He suggested the groundwork for legislative solutions is nascent, and better data, better documentation of policy options and more consensus-building are needed.

"We want to work with the governor; we want to work with the Senate to come up with a solution to this problem. There are no easy answers," Lucas said.

The speaker seems to be saying the Legislature needs more time to get it right.

That might be progress of a sort - if his approach evolves as meaningful solutions that eclipse the dogmatic rationalizations that have actually nurtured this crisis.

Lucas' approach is sure to disappoint the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and broad coalitions, such as S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads. These groups had been shaping an urgent message of highway system realities as the General Assembly begins its work.

It's a recital of hard-to-dispute realities that ought to keep the crisis on the Legislature's priority radar screen.

We South Carolinians don't like unsafe, congested highways. We're anxious about so many bridges and overpasses graded "substandard." (Hello! School buses use these things; so do many family cars.) We're uneasy about too many stretches of interstate and rural roadways being repetitive accident zones - killing fields, really, like Interstate 26 from Summerville to Orangeburg.

We now understand that substandard roads and bridges extract a variety of hidden costs, such as more frequent vehicle repairs and higher insurance premiums, and the value of time lost in the congestion of too many vehicles on ill-maintained roadways.

"Disgrace" is a word that makes proud South Carolinians writhe, but that's precisely the term Michelin's Chairman and President Pete Selleck used last November to define our state road system. He then issued a polite warning that road funding is "out of whack" -and "if this does not get solved, then Michelin is going to have to look about further expansion in this state."

South Carolina, with its "business-friendly" reputation, is a leader in manufacturing employment. It's investing heavily in the logistical powers of a modern Port of Charleston. The road funding crisis is a disconnect with South Carolina's marketing narrative - and with the progressive image we South Carolinians have of ourselves. We proudly welcome industrial investments in our state yet we balk at investing in a highway system befitting our ambitions.

For two decades, we might have thanked our elected officials for a static fuel user fee, among the very lowest in the nation. But now, 26 years after our 16.75 cents per gallon levy was last increased, South Carolina faces an annual $1.47 billion highway funding shortfall for the next 30 years.

The system is in the crossfire of critical needs, spiraling costs, and a management and priority system that begs for reforms.

And we know that highway funding solutions must be achieved without affecting other state priorities, such as higher education and public safety.

Users must pay more, especially the 35 percent of gas-buying motorists from other states. Every dollar siphoned from the general fund to offset the "user-pays" rule is a dollar taken from classrooms and a linkage to higher tuitions, and another reason we won't have enough highway patrolmen policing our challenged road system.

A modern highway system is expensive, but so are the net costs of our state's neglected roads and bridges, now managed into their decline. Perhaps the largest costs, though, are the insidious penalties of policy neglect, penalties that could affect many future generations.

Speaker Lucas has made his point - this is complicated. But here's hoping 2015 will not be yet another year of political tap dancing and can-kicking for a policy crisis that should have been resolved years ago.

Ron Brinson, a former associate editor of this newspaper, was president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities 1979 to 1986, and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans 1986 to 2002. A North Charleston city councilman, he can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.