On Roads: Reform First

SC Road Plans


By South Carolina Policy Council on Tuesday, September 29, 2015 •

If more money were the answer to the state’s infrastructure woes, the topic would hardly be worth debating. The real trouble with South Carolina’s roads, though, isn’t a lack of money. It’s a lack – indeed, a total lack – of citizen control or influence on road funding.

How do we know more money won’t produce better roads?

Consider the fact that since 2012 the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) total ratified budget (from all three parts of the budget – General Fund, federal funds, Other Funds) has grown by $708 million. That’s about 54 percent when adjusted for inflation. Further, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank’s (STIB) budget has grown from $50 million in 2014 to $155 million in 2015, and hit a whopping $255 million in the current fiscal year.

The state’s transportation budget is growing, then – more money has been put into it – with no discernible improvement.

The common misconception by proponents of a gas tax increase is that the state needs more overall revenue. That’s not the same as supposing we need to spend more of what we have on repair. Consider: in the last fiscal year less than $300 million of the just under $2 billion in transportation funding was free to be devoted to road maintenance anywhere in the state road system.
In reality, though, no one has any idea if the state needs more overall revenue. Why? Because the current system of prioritization and funding of projects is not transparent. For example, 642 payments were made from the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) to the home county of Florence Sen. Hugh Leatherman – he’s also a member of the STIB board – from 2010 to March of this year. Under our current system, it’s simply impossible to know if these monies were used on the most pressing transportation needs in the state. It seems extremely unlikely, but the truth is that there is no way to be sure.

And indeed some lawmakers have even complained that they don’t know what projects the DOT has prioritized according to Act 114 (a law they passed in 2007 that “restructured” the Department of Transportation).

Lawmakers made a gesture at transparency in the 2015-16 budget by inserting a proviso requiring the project priority list to be made publicly available.

By itself, though, that will accomplish very little as long as the underlying problem remains the same – namely that the lion’s share of power over the DOT belongs to two lawmakers for whom the great majority of South Carolinians can’t vote for and have never heard of. Consider:

 Seven of the eight members that comprise the DOT Commission are appointed by the the state’s seven legislative delegations, and those delegation members can only choose from a list of candidates screened and approved by the Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC).

 The House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem directly control half the appointments to the JTRC.

 The governor has one appointment to the Commission, and even that appointee has to be approved by the JTRC.

 The Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem wield the majority of the power over the STIB board by controlling four of the seven appointments.

No reasonable and unbiased person would look at this system – a system dominated by a few people who can’t be held accountable for the total outcome – and conclude that its woes must be due to a lack of money.

Clearly reform must come before any consideration of revenue. But how?

 The Department of Transportation Commission should be eliminated and the DOT Secretary made directly accountable to the governor. Decisions affecting the state’s road system should be made by an official accountable to the entire state – the governor – and when the system fails in one way or another, citizens should know who’s responsible.

 The STIB should be eliminated entirely. Revenue currently used by the STIB to pay bond debt and fund new projects should fund repair and maintenance of the roads we currently have. If bonding is necessary to pay for roads in the future, that debt should be incurred by a fully accountable DOT.

 Finally: expenditures, matching federal projects, debt, and project prioritization should be fully transparent. Citizens should be able to see how much money is actually available for our roads, and which projects are being funded – the most critical, or pet projects. Only when citizens and the media can see exactly which projects are being funded and which aren’t – unnecessary expansions versus long-needed repair, for instance – will those in authority have an incentive to change.

Once these reforms are achieved, lawmakers may begin talking about taking more money from taxpayers and putting it into the transportation system. Not until then.


Paid for and authorized by the Beaufort County Republican Party.

Not Authorized by any Candidate or Candidate's Committee.