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Coalition Urges SC General Assembly to Provide Additional Highway Funding

A coalition of business groups urged the General Assembly to enact additional highway improvement funding to avoid a collision between the state’s fast-growing economy and a road system that is rapidly falling behind the state’s transportation needs, reports the Charleston Regional Business Journal. The business transportation agenda from the S.C. Business Roundtable is signed by the leaders of 14 groups representing the private sector.

“The plan calls for critically important widening projects to South Carolina’s interstates, fixing load-restricted and deficient bridges and resurfacing existing roadways,” the business leaders said in a report to lawmakers. “All of these projects are necessary and inevitable if the state is going to improve the safety and efficiency of the existing system and keep up with the demands created by economic development successes.”

The business transportation agenda from the S.C. Business Roundtable, titled South Carolina’s roadmap to the future, is signed by the leaders of 14 groups representing the private sector, from chambers of commerce to manufacturers and real estate.

S.C. lags neighbors on road spending

The agenda estimates the state’s critical highway needs at $6 billion, broken down as $2.8 billion for interstate highway expansion; $2 billion for bridges; and $1.2 billion for resurfacing. The report notes that while North Carolina spends more than $150,000 per mile on roads, and Georgia spends $35,000 per mile, South Carolina currently invests just $15,000 per mile on its highway system.

While the Business Roundtable saw interstate expansion needs statewide, it singled out Interstate 26 as a uniquely critical commercial and economic development artery. “We believe it deserves special and immediate improvement in order to serve our vital tourism, port, manufacturing, just-in-time shipping and everyday travel requirements,” the Business Roundtable said.

The Business Roundtable said it takes no position on how the transportation needs should be funded. But it did single out three options that it said the General Assembly might choose from:
■Dedicate 20% of new General Fund revenue.
■Earmark the Capital Reserve funds.
■Redirect existing vehicle-related revenue.

The Business Roundtable estimated that those three options together would produce an additional $250 million to be spent on highway and bridge improvements this year alone. The S.C. Chamber of Commerce goes further. In a summary of options on its website, the chamber suggests considering some of the following options:
■Dedicating General Fund dollars for investment.
■Allowing for a statewide referendum to increase the sales tax by 1% for the specific purpose of infrastructure financing.
■Raising the sales tax cap on automobiles to a level that is competitive with North Carolina and Georgia.
■Increasing the motor fuel user fee to a rate that is competitive with North Carolina and Georgia.
■Examining tolling options at the state’s borders for expanded lanes.
■Examining user fee increases on driver’s licenses and automobile tags as vehicles become more fuel efficient and with increasing use of alternative sources of energy.

The conservation view

Even environmental groups are weighing in on the shortcomings of the state’s transportation improvement programs. Upstate Forever, a Greenville-based conservation group, included fixing transportation funding in its 2013 legislative agenda.

“Our state’s roads and bridges are crumbling. This is dangerous and expensive for our citizens and damaging to our economy. The 62% of South Carolina’s roads maintained by the S.C. Department of Transportation are on a 191-year repaving cycle,” Upstate Forever said in its legislative agenda message.

Upstate Forever also noted that the director of the S.C. Department of Transportation told lawmakers last week that 886 state bridges are structurally deficient and that nearly half of primary roads and more than half of secondary roads are in poor condition.

“Bringing our road system back up to industry standards will require an investment of $29 billion over the next 20 years, or $1.4 billion annually, according to a DOT report,” Upstate Forever said. “But the agency’s entire annual budget is approximately $1.3 billion.”

The Upstate conservation group joined the Coastal Conservation League in calling for the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank, established in 1997, to be dissolved and its functions merged into the DOT. The bank “acts as a shadow DOT, funding nine-digit construction projects which DOT then must add to its maintenance roster. Six of our state’s 46 counties have received 95% of STIB (State Transportation Infrastructure Bank) funds to date,” Upstate Forever said.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen has filed bill S.184, which would require DOT to prioritize and expedite projects relating to road and bridge maintenance, preservation and rehabilitation (also known as “fix-it first”). Sen. Harvey Peeler, along with Sens. Sheheen and Greg Gregory, have filed bill S.209, which would abolish the Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board and fold the bank into DOT. Similar bills are expected to be filed in the House. Read More.


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