By Robert Kittle
South Carolina lawmakers have passed a plan to fix state roads and bridges, which they agreed at the start of the legislative session was their top priority. The Senate agreed on a final bill around 11:00 Tuesday night and the House approved it late Wednesday afternoon. The legislative session ends Thursday.
“It would provide $3.4 billion in construction and restoration funds that will be spread out over projects over a 10-year period,” says Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who was on the conference committee that worked on the final bill. “So we’re going to tackle $3.4 billion worth of problems in South Carolina and some of these projects, the resurfacing and the repair and reconstruction, they’ll begin rather soon,” he says.
The new state budget takes effect July 1st, so the DOT will start getting $215 million more per year then. It will use that money to pay back bonds, which is how it will raise the $3.4 billion.
The sticking point had been how to restructure the Department of Transportation. Lawmakers agreed that it needed to be done, in order to take politics out of the decision-making process on which roads get fixed or built, but couldn’t agree on exactly how to do it.
Under the final plan, the governor will appoint all eight DOT commissioners. Now, they’re appointed by state lawmakers from each Congressional delegation. Critics say that sets up the commissioners to fight to get money for their areas instead of doing what’s best for the state as a whole. Lawmakers will still have input after the governor nominates commissioners, and the Senate will have advice and consent on the governor’s nominees.
Sen. Grooms says there are other important changes, too. “We’re requiring, for the first time, that the State Infrastructure Bank have to abide by the statewide transportation improvement plan. They just can’t pick any project at random. It has to fit into the state transportation plan. That project has to meet certain objective criteria and also the SIB project would also have to have approval by the DOT Commission.”
Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, who also worked on the final plan, says it also clarifies the roles of the DOT secretary and commissioners. “The secretary, who was appointed by the governor in times past, and then the commission, who was appointed by the General Assembly, who did the secretary answer to? So really, in this case, Christy Hall had two bosses. We wanted to make sure that didn’t exist so we created a line of authority with the delineation of the powers, so that the commission is really responsible for hiring the secretary and long-range planning, but not day-to-day business of the DOT.”
He says this plan will improve state roads and bridges over the next 10 years, but there’s more work they need to do. “We leave on the table, though, really a clear way of paying for roads in the next 15 to 20 to 25 years, and that will eventually end up being the gas tax, which the House passed because we recognize that, with that tax, we collect about one-third of that revenue from people outside of South Carolina, so they help us pay for our roads,” he says.