Gas-tax-hike law at 3 years: Completed jobs still lag way behind collections
By Rick Brundrett
In the first three years of the gas-tax-hike law, the state collected more than $1.3 billion in revenues – enough to pay for almost all of the identified road and bridge projects statewide – yet is sitting on nearly half of the money, newly released records show.
As of June 30, the total dollar amount of completed “pavements” projects was less than half of the overall estimated costs of all such projects in the state’s 46 counties, The Nerve found in a review of S.C. Department of Transportation records.
And some of those numbers keep shifting for unexplained reasons, raising questions about the reliability of DOT’s records and whether the state’s bad roads are actually getting fixed, as The Nerve initially reported last month.
For example, in York County, the DOT as of May 31 listed 29 completed “pavements” projects totaling $18.2 million, but as of June 30, none of those projects was listed as 100 percent finished. Eight other counties also showed drops in completed project amounts from May to June, The Nerve’s latest review found.
Meanwhile, the state Joint Bond Review Committee (JBRC) has approved a total of up to $74.6 million in grants through the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) for improvements to existing Interstate 77 interchanges in York County.
In addition, The Nerve revealed last month that the state could kick in $40 million – $15 million more than initially offered – toward a new I-77 interchange in York County to accommodate plans by the NFL’s Carolina Panthers to move its headquarters and training facility to Rock Hill. The estimated $88.5 million project is $38.5 million more than what was described in an earlier federal grant application.
The nine-member JBRC, a legislative committee, is chaired by longtime state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who also sits on the seven-member STIB board. The STIB over the years funneled several billion dollars to large construction projects in select counties.
The gas-tax-hike law, which took effect July 1, 2017, raised the state gas tax by 12 cents per gallon over six years – a 75 percent jump from the base 16 cents – and also increased other vehicle taxes and fees. In pushing for the hike, lawmakers promised the money would be used to fix the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges.
The DOT has said 80 percent of the state’s approximately 42,000 miles of roads needs resurfacing or rebuilding, and identified 465 out of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges to be replaced.
The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, has contended the gas-tax-hike law was written in a way to allow the DOT to divert revenues to the STIB to pay off bond debts.
As of June 30, the state collected $1.318 billion in gas-tax-hike revenues, which represented nearly 97.2 percent of the $1.356 billion in project “commitments” statewide, DOT records show. Nearly $258.6 million, or 19 percent, of total project “commitments” was designated for interstate widenings – not repairing bad roads or bridges.
Last year, Leatherman created a special Senate panel to study accelerating interstate expansion.
The DOT paid vendors a total of $611 million in the first three years of the gas-tax-hike law, with nearly $597 million in reserves as of June 30, agency records show. The surplus represented 45.2 percent of total deposits during the period.
The Nerve’s latest review found that the total dollar amount of completed “pavements” projects that were identified in the state’s 46 counties was $446.6 million, or 48.4 percent of the estimated collective $922 million cost of all such projects in those counties as of June 30.
Following is a list of counties in which the total dollar amount of completed “pavements” projects was less than 40 percent of the collective projected cost of all such projects as of June 30, according to DOT records:
Kershaw: $5.2 million (38.1 percent);
Horry: $25.7 million (37.6 percent);
Oconee: $8.4 million (36.4 percent);
Aiken: $8.6 million (36 percent);
Allendale: $2.7 million (35.8 percent);
Hampton: $3.1 million (34.7 percent);
Darlington: $4.8 million (33 percent);
Anderson: $14 million (32 percent);
Lee: $2.3 million (31.9 percent);
Newberry: $4.5 million (26.3 percent);
Pickens: $5.5 million (23.4 percent);
Georgetown: $2.7 million (10.4 percent);
*DOT records as of May 31 listed $18.2 million in completed “pavements” projects, or 70.4 percent of the total estimated dollar amount of all such projects, in the county. No explanation was given for the discrepancy between the May 31 and June 30 figures; the records said only the June numbers were “preliminary subject to FY 2020 close.” Fiscal year 2020 ended June 30.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.