Report finds DOT needs better structure, more money

On March 11, the Williamson-Johnson Road at the Orangeburg-Aiken county line in Salley. Transportation officials say 46 percent of the pavement on South Carolina’s state roads are in poor condition.

COLUMBIA — The General Assembly’s investigative arm found no mismanagement of the cash-strapped state Department of Transportation but says the current agency structure creates “confusion” and should be changed so that there’s better use of the pot of cash for roads.

The Legislative Audit Council’s exhaustive report Tuesday detailed DOT’s need for more money to fix the state’s increasingly poor road conditions and also to change the governing structure of the agency — concerns that lawmakers and other state officials are debating to overhaul.

While the report proposes several funding alternatives to supplement the state’s 16.75-cent per gallon gas tax, no current legislation incorporates any of the alternative recommendations, including a surcharge on insurance premiums, rental car fees, charges on vehicle miles traveled and fees on alternative fuel or electric vehicles.

The state’s reliance on its gas tax was singled out. “Overall revenues are not keeping pace with inflation,” the report found. “SCDOT’s reliance on a per-gallon fuel tax can be problematic since it does not self-adjust for inflation and there has been decreased fuel consumption. There are alternative revenue sources the S.C. General Assembly should consider.”

The release comes as the House is currently debating a $400 million roads funding plan approved by the Senate early last month that would guarantee road money right off the top of the budget.

But the Senate plan, authored by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, has been derided by House leaders for its reliance on only budget dollars instead of dedicated funding sources, such as tax and fee increases.

Less money equals rising construction costs to the tune of 758 percent more to re-do a one-lane mile section of road in poor condition versus preserving a mile of road in good condition, according to the report.

Which of the state’s crumbling roads gets fixed and in what order is also unclear. The report found that the DOT project prioritization process “is not transparent” to the department or DOT Commission, the agency’s rule-making body. The LAC couldn’t determine if projects were properly ranked and there is not a central list of all ranked projects.

DOT Secretary Christy Hall disagreed with the transparency concerns, noting that the prioritization and ranking processes the agency uses are complex, but follow Legislature approved guidelines.

The structure of the agency is also problematic, the report found. “The presence of a Commission appointed by the General Assembly coupled with a department head appointed by the governor creates confusion and undermines the authority of both,” the authors said. “We identified no other in-state agencies with two entities designated as the governing authority.”

The commission and Hall agree structural changes are needed.

“The LAC itself noted the confusion over the simple question of who is in charge at the agency,” Hall said. “Without that critical issue resolved, it will be nearly impossible to set clear priorities, instill effective accountability and correctly answer the question of where the buck stops for the organization.”

The Senate bill changes the DOT Commission from seven members appointed by legislators from congressional districts and one at-large pick by the governor, to the governor selecting all commissioners — a move, among several, the LAC report supports.

Grooms took the report’s release as another opportunity to press House colleagues to move forward on the roads bill when they pick up debate later this month.

“We began reforming DOT several years ago, and as I said then, it didn’t go far enough,” Grooms said in a statement. “The House has had my plan for nearly a month, and it’s time to act.”

Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said the ad-hoc committee he chairs that developed the House roads bill will discuss the LAC findings Thursday.

“Should the commission be more policy versus project driven, that may be part of DOT reform we talk about,” Simrill said. “I think that’s part of the revelation we will glean from the report.”

The entire LAC report can be found here.