Surplus no long-term road fix

The South Carolina Statehouse. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

Voters should see state lawmakers’ hedging on an increased gas tax for what it is: weak spines.

They are casting around for a plan — any plan — that would appear to address South Carolina’s deteriorating roads while not labeling themselves as tax raisers.

The latest plan is to use a likely $400 million surplus the state now expects to clear this year. Doing that would allow them to put off substantive solutions for another year.

The irony is that polls have shown that South Carolinians support the idea of a gas tax increase for road maintenance and repair. They understand that adequate roads are necessary for residents driving to work or the grocery store as well as industry shipping goods.

Gov. Nikki Haley is the primary obstacle. She has threatened to veto any road-funding bill that raises the gas tax without cutting the income tax. If enough legislators showed some courage to do the right thing, they could override her veto.

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, and Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, both have valid reservations about a transportation plan that does not provide a steady stream of revenue. Without being able to rely on that revenue year after year, the DOT cannot plan efficiently which projects to undertake and when to begin them.

And it will mean that the same, tired debates and excuses will be resurrected in the 2016 legislative session.

Further, some legislators recognize that the state has other pressing needs that cannot be funded through the regular operational budget. The surplus could apply to those.

Sen. Grooms named two — the new women’s and children’s hospital at the Medical University of South Carolina and an aeronautical training center at Trident Technical College. He is in favor of using half the surplus — $200 million — for roads and half for capital needs.

“Those are very important projects, not only for the Lowcountry but for the state,” he said.

And as S.C. industries require more aeronautical employees, there is no time to waste.

Those are exactly the kinds of projects that the surplus should be used for since it appears that the best option — a bond bill that would produce money at no additional cost to South Carolinians — appears to be on shaky ground.

One critical caveat: Even if some of the surplus is directed to road maintenance, a gas tax increase — in effect, a user fee — is a must.

Otherwise, South Carolina can’t finally begin to chisel away at repairing battered roads and building new ones to serve impressive growth in population and industry.

The main reason the roads are in such sorry shape is that the DOT has been underfunded. Forgoing a sustainable road-funding plan would only exacerbate the problems that the agency estimates will require more than $1 billion a year to fix.

It’s a fact that South Carolina might not be able to come up with that much money this year, but the state needs to begin taking giant steps that will move the effort forward substantially.

The present condition of and function of South Carolina’s road system is inexcusable.

For legislators to try to pick some low-hanging fruit and call it a day is inexcusable and shortsighted.