House panel mulls changes to Senate roads bill

S.C. Department of Transportation officials unveiled a 55-foot-long list of 1,530 road projects in response to critics wondering why the agency doesn’t compile its multiple priority lists into one. DOT Secretary Christy Hall was among several state officials who spoke during a more than five-hour House roads panel meeting regarding a recent report on the agency.

COLUMBIA — State Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said her agency will make improvements to how road projects are ranked and funded in light of a recent state report highlighting concerns.

But Hall said funding isn’t more pressing than fixing the Department of Transportation’s confusing management structure — as pointed out in a recent Legislative Audit Council report — in a management flow chart that’s split between her position and a policy-making commission.

“I believe we’ve got a year to continue to work on the funding issue together,” Hall said Thursday. “As far as I see it right now, this governance issue needs to be resolved.”

A $400 million Senate roads bill would change how commissioners are appointed, but concerned House lawmakers could change their role and how the agency is funded when it returns to session next week.

“I prefer us to receive this information so you and others can work on amendment language, should you so decide,” House Transportation Infrastructure and Management Ad Hoc Committee chairman Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, told other lawmakers.

The House-approved budget roughly meets the Senate’s funding request, but Republicans and Democrats say taking budget money instead of creating dedicated funding streams to address some of the $1.2 billion in annual road improvement needs isn’t reliable. The LAC report backed up that claim and listed multiple potential sources, including a gas tax increase, to fund it.

When pressed by lawmakers Thursday, LAC audit manager Brad Hanley didn’t say which method would be the best funding option. “The best form is from a steady stream from somewhere,” Hanley said.

Frank Rainwater, director of the S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, said if the Senate bill passed, lawmakers could face future funding shortfalls and won’t be able to use reserve funds to meet the annual request.

“Most of the new money for DOT came out of non-recurring money, that would create an annualization problem,” Rainwater said, referring to the $250 million in one-time money the House approved this year.

The money pales in comparison to what the Transportation Department needs. DOT officials rolled out a 55-foot-long list of 1,530 projects to illustrate the state’s road woes but also to show the inefficiency of a single definitive project list. The list included the Interstate 20/Interstate 26 Malfunction Junction, tied for first with four other projects; the 154 miles of interstate expansion improvements needed; and some of the $3 billion in improvements to primary roads, among others.

Hall said DOT agreed with 85 percent of the LAC’s recommendations. She began working on increasing transparency and limiting conflicts of interest when she took over the agency in January.

“We agree we need to clarify how we’re ranking projects, and we agree wholeheartedly we need to draw the connection between funding, project selection and what happens after that,” Hall said. “We’ve dropped the ball on that and we need to do a better job so it’s easier to understand.”