Calls for gas tax hike louder after proposal snubs roads

A potholed stretch of S.C. Highway 61 in Dorchester County is among the state’s deteriorating roads that business interests and transportation officials say needs to be fixed to save drivers money and keep the state’s economy growing.

COLUMBIA — The drumbeat to do something about South Carolina’s crumbling roads and bridges hasn’t died down in the week since Gov. Nikki Haley’s surprise snub of transportation in the proposed budget she sent to the Legislature.

If anything, it’s gotten louder.

While remaining cautiously optimistic Haley will unveil her promised fix in Wednesday’s State of the State address, business leaders and transportation officials recently cited a report showing potholes and other road hazards cost South Carolina drivers $3 billion a year and called for raising the state’s gas tax.

“Every day, the cost to maintain our roads is going to continue to rise,” said Bill Ross, executive director of S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads. “You’ve got to find a revenue stream for that.”

Haley vowed last year to veto any hike in the state’s gas tax, leading to a rare instance in which a Republican governor taking an anti-tax stand in a conservative state finds herself at odds with chambers of commerce and economic development groups, traditionally among the staunchest opponents of higher taxes. The veto threat also has put her at odds with some lawmakers in her own party, especially in the state Senate, who have said all options for fixing transportation need to be on the table.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce is among those pressuring lawmakers to raise the state’s nearly 17-cent-per-gallon gas tax, which hasn’t been increased since 1987 and is one of the lowest in the country. President Bryan Derreberry has said the chamber is asking for a 25-cent increase knowing it’s unlikely lawmakers would go that high in hopes of getting a smaller increase.

Haley’s proposed budget elevated education and the troubled Department of Social Services to top priorities, while barely making a dent in the estimated $42 billion shortfall over the next 20 years needed to keep roads and bridges from deteriorating further and improve commutes and travel. Haley’s proposed spending plan allocates all of the money from the sales tax on automobile purchases to transportation, up from the current 50 percent. That would increase funding for the Department of Transportation by $61 million.

It’s a step in the right direction, according to Ted Pitts, president and CEO of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce.

“The business community is clearly speaking with one voice in telling our state leaders we can’t wait any longer on providing adequate funding to maintain and improve our state’s infrastructure,” Pitts said in a statement.

State lawmakers, including some of Haley’s sharpest critics, said they, too, are waiting for Haley to deliver on her campaign promise to lay out a plan for funding transportation maintenance and improvements — estimated at a minimum of $400 million and as high as $1.5 billion a year.

Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, said Haley was “right on point” in allocating an additional $61 million to roads. But, he added, if Haley is going to make better roads and bridges part of her legacy, now is the time to “pick up the gauntlet.”

“The time to act is now, but the way you act is you become the leader by showing ‘here’s how we will generate the money DOT needs,’ ” Cleary said. “With the right leadership and the right plans, infrastructure plans can be met in this state.”

Many lawmakers and business leaders are promoting a combination of ways to boost funding for DOT, including an increase in the gas tax. Except that advocates are calling it a “motorist user fee” instead of a tax.

Tourists passing through the state, not just South Carolinians, would also shoulder the burden of paying for the state’s roads and bridges if the “motorist user fee” is raised, Cleary said.

“It’s a user fee and the people who use it the most pay for it,” Cleary said. “When I talk to people in my district, they get it.”

Higher fees wouldn’t stop there. Bumping fees for renewing driver’s licenses, adding fees to trailers, eliminating the sales tax cap of $300 on vehicles are all cash streams that could help fund DOT, Cleary said.

Rick Todd, president and CEO of the S.C. Trucking Association, said his organization endorses more money for DOT coming from existing revenues and user fee increases, and they’re ready to work with the Legislature to make it happen.

“Our job is to continue to let them know that our economy is going to continue to struggle with an inadequate infrastructure and to press them to solve these problems,” Todd said. “We are all suffering from a system that is not as safe and efficient as it could be.”

The Republican-controlled Legislature could increase funding for transportation any time it wants, said Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia. But it’s hard to do anything meaningful with the threat of a veto looming over a gas tax increase, he said.

“Is it going to take a bridge to fall?” Smith asked. “It gets worse and worse with each passing year. The people of South Carolina have been waiting for four years. It’s about time (Haley) shows some real commitment.”

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.