COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s network of rural roads could be getting $100 million in upgrades using money from the state's nearly $2 billion budget surplus.
But the proposal from S.C. House budget writers comes two years after lawmakers agreed to raise the state's gasoline tax by 12 cents a gallon, which along with increased vehicle fees eventually will provide more than $600 million a year for roadwork.
The gas tax is rising slowly, however, by 2 cents a year, so House budget writers want to speed rural road work with some of the extra money in the state's bank account.
“Although we have passed a gas tax, I want to remind everybody we’re only halfway through the implementation of the gas tax. We’ve had decades of neglect," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said. "But what I hope to do today is accelerate some of those plans so we can try to move things forward."
Rep. Neal Collins, R-Easley, questioned why lawmakers would tap into the surplus to pay for roads when the state is already raising taxes.
"I don't like using general funds for roads, as roads have their own dedicated source of income," he said. "But I understand the push to get even more roadwork occurring since that is one of, if not the, top complaint."
Under the House plan, $77 million would go to the state transportation agency and $23 million would go to counties in the budget year starting July 1. The state spent twice as much on interstate widening than on rural roads since the gas tax hike went into effect in July 2017, according to state transportation data.
“Roads are one place that helps everybody in the state and commerce, and they touch all districts, so that makes for very happy representatives and senators,” state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said Wednesday. “We’re trying to infuse that system with dollars to bring them up to their ready speed.
“We've got this lag time with the funding slowly being implemented, and there's this gap,” she said. “We will crank up that roadwork in those two-lane areas that are spread across our state in all of our districts.”
Road conditions remain a top concern of voters in South Carolina that has among the nation's most miles of state-maintained roadways. The proposed funding comes as all 170 seats in the Legislature are up for election this year.
A vote on the extra roads spending, along with the rest of the $10 billion state budget, is expected to move out of the House budget committee Thursday. After passing the full House, the state budget heads to the Senate for consideration and Gov. Henry McMaster's desk for final approval.
More than 4,100 miles of roads have been repaired since increased gas tax collections began in 2017, totaling $1.2 billion in engineering and construction costs, according to DOT statistics. Almost $124 million to date has been spent on rural road safety, half of the $248 million spent on interstates.
South Carolina’s rural roadways are the deadliest in America, according to 2019 report by TRIP, a national transportation research nonprofit. It found a fatality rate of 3.6 out of every 100 million vehicle miles traveled, nearly 70 percent higher than the national average.
Spending the budget surplus could face challenges in the Senate where leaders have said they want to give a portion back to taxpayers directly in rebates. The House budget plan does have its own plan, a $100 tax credit for each return.
"If you look at DOT's website and page devoted to gas tax collections, it looks like they have plenty of money in the bank," Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said. "I've heard from them several times the problem is they can't spend because they don't have the contractors to do the work."