$2.2B Senate road plan omits I-526 project

A new roads plan to put $2.2 billion toward road, interstate and bridge improvements is gaining traction with state senators, but money wouldn’t be available to projects funded prior to July 1, 2013. That includes the Interstate 526 project.

COLUMBIA — Two new road funding bills debated Tuesday would send an estimated $2.2 billion to improve South Carolina’s transportation infrastructure, but none of the potential money would go toward completing the $725 million Interstate 526 loop around Charleston.

The bills, authored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, shift millions in fees from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, along with dollars from the state Department of Transportation into road projects.

Funds would also be sent to the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which would determine projects, followed by approval coming from a committee of Statehouse lawmakers.

The changes would allow the infrastructure bank to leverage about $200 million in redirected money into a $2.2 billion borrowing package to expand or improve current state roads, interstates and bridges — but not I-526 or projects approved before July 2013 — as well as future large infrastructure expansions.

SCDOT Secretary Christy Hall told senators the financial switch up, which reduces the agency’s ability to pave roads by $65 million, creates a slew of new unanswered questions.

“The concern is simply the policy issue of resurfacing dollars being diverted for county widening projects,” Hall said. “Are we ‘fix it first’ or what exactly are we trying to do?” Statewide, South Carolina’s road-improvement needs total around $1.2 billion annually for the next three decades.

At the request of lawmakers, the DOT developed funding scenarios centered on fixing current roadways and bridges first before constructing new ones. One scenario would send an additional $400 million a year for a decade to SCDOT, which would only reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges on interstates and main roads to 50 percent.

Senate Transportation Chairman Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, said in an earlier meeting that bridges are in need of funding, but devoting money earmarked to already underfunded road requirements isn’t appropriate.

“I don’t want to stop this bill, but I will if we’re going to hurt our ability to maintain any roads in the state,” Grooms said. “We have the most dangerous rural roads in the country. The condition of the asphalt, width of lanes, the shoulders all contributes to the deaths of South Carolinians.”

Leatherman later said roughly $800 million of the $2.2 billion would be steered toward rural highway improvements.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, had minor qualms with the bills. He thinks that any new road money should be sent to maintenance needs first once reform is approved — a point he filibustered for several weeks on this year.

Davis said the potential for sending a SCDOT-recommended project list for the infrastructure bank to follow would reduce concerns of the bank wielding too much power.

Leatherman’s bills now emerge as a second roads plan to the House-amended roads bill. The next step will be the formation of a conference committee made up of House and Senate members. Gov. Nikki Haley said the amended bill nixes any chance of SCDOT reform this year since committee appointees will be made by Leatherman, who she says will prevent a reform measure going forward.

“Despite the political hyperbole, today’s actions prove that DOT reform is very much alive and well in South Carolina,” House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, said in a statement. “The Senate took a very important step by advancing the roads bill through the legislative process and on to a conference committee.”

A conference committee could be formed as soon as Wednesday.