Reprinted from The Greenville News – November 19, 2013
The South Carolina State Transportation Infrastructure Bank took a step forward last week when it approved a $550 million highway improvement plan that will allow four major projects — including a vital Upstate interchange improvement — to move forward.
The decision was not perfect. However, in a state where the transportation infrastructure needs grossly outweigh the available resources, the bank made a viable choice that gets the projects moving and could put several others in a position to move forward quickly as soon as more funding is available.
That is as close to a win-win that probably could be achieved.
The proposal approved by the Infrastructure Bank board pays $80 million for improving the I-85/I-385 interchange in Greenville; $262 million to widen a 16-mile stretch of I-85 in Spartanburg and Cherokee counties; $154 million to widen a 10-mile stretch of I-20 in Lexington County; and $38 million to widen a 2.6-mile part of I-77 near Columbia, according to a recent report by Greenville News Columbia bureau reporter Tim Smith.
It also provides up to $10 million for engineering work on improvements to an area of interstate near Columbia known locally as “Malfunction Junction;” $4 million for engineering work on the widening of the last segment of I-85 to the North Carolina state line; and up to $6 million for engineering of other interstate projects that would be submitted by the state Department of Transportation.
The money for the I-85/I-385 interchange is vital. That project truly is “shovel ready” and it is an area of urgent need. The interchange that handles 200,000 cars every day is a source of frequent backups as cars exit to the always-busy Woodruff Road from both interstates.
Work could start next year with the infrastructure board’s action. The funding allocated to the project represents about $20 million less than originally sought, although Don Leonard, chairman of the Infrastructure Bank board, said the loss of $20 million from the project would not have a negative impact.
Given that South Carolina’s highway needs total, by one estimate, $29 billion over the next 20 years, the Upstate should be thankful that two of the four projects approved are in our backyard.
The importance of improving our infrastructure cannot be overstated. State Sen. Hugh Leatherman pointed to the state of Washington as an example, where Boeing has asked the state to approve up to $9 billion in road work.
“That’s coming to our state sooner or later,” Leatherman was quoted as saying. “When I’m talking to companies about moving here, they say, ‘Senator, do you have a road system good enough to move our people and goods? If you don’t, we ain’t coming.’ ”
Businesses demand a high-quality infrastructure that lets them safely and efficiently bring in raw materials and ship products to market. Residents also deserve safe roads to get to and from work and recreation opportunities.
Leatherman called the $550 million in improvements a “good Band-Aid.” That’s a sound assessment. But it is a Band-Aid that will do little to stop the bleeding unless similar ones are applied every year. And even that will not bring our infrastructure to where it needs to be.
Like John Edwards, the DOT Board Chairman, said after the improvements were approved, “I think this helps a good bit, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Highway improvements of the magnitude mentioned by Leatherman — and the magnitude faced by South Carolina over the next 20 years — cannot be achieved without a stable source of revenue.
Lawmakers need to begin having serious discussions about finding such a revenue stream. A logical place to start is increasing a gasoline tax that has not been raised in more than two decades and is one of the lowest in the country.
Again Leatherman provided wisdom when he said, “We’ve got to address the whole problem, and I don’t understand why we can’t do that.”
Part of the reason the Legislature cannot address the whole problem is that too many lawmakers refuse to discuss any sort of tax increases. Years of overzealous aversion to taxes of any sort have created the holes that exist in our infrastructure; and it is likely that the only way to dig out will be to increase some taxes and fees in a state that, despite near-constant rhetoric, has a relatively light tax burden.
It should be painfully apparent that culture needs to be reversed when the amount of money approved last week — more than half a billion dollars — does not cover even half of one year’s infrastructure needs. Read More.