Lawmakers ignoring $500 million piggy bank to fix S.C.’s bad roads
By Rick Brundrett
While House budget writers have designated an extra $100 million next fiscal year for paving rural roads statewide, the S.C. Department of Transportation is sitting on a separate surplus of more than a half-billion dollars, newly released DOT records show.
As of Jan. 31, a special fund created with the state gas-tax-hike law had a cash balance of nearly $500.6 million, according to agency records. That represented 46 percent of the $1.08 billion in total collected revenues since the law took effect July 1, 2017.
And although overall collections represented more than 82 percent of total project “commitments” listed by DOT, less than 44 percent of the revenues – about $475.4 million – had been paid to vendors for completed work in the first 31 months of the law, records show.
The Nerve’s latest review found that identified “pavements” projects totaling about $287.5 million were completed in the state’s 46 counties as of Jan. 31, which represented less than 32 percent of the total $907.2 million estimated cost of all such projects. No new paving projects were completed in 40 counties from the end of December.
In 16 counties, the total dollar amount of completed paving projects was less than 20 percent of the collective estimated cost of all such projects in those counties as of Jan. 31. That list included the larger counties of Richland, Charleston, Horry and Lexington, which ranked at the bottom at 3.9 percent.
And few major paving projects have been completed in most rural counties, The Nerve’s review found. As of Jan. 31 in Calhoun and Hampton counties, for example, less than 7 percent of the total estimated cost of all identified “pavements” projects in those counties was designated as completed, records show.
As part of the fiscal 2021 state budget version passed last week by the House Ways and Means Committee, $77 million in projected surplus revenues was appropriated to DOT for paving rural roads, identified in the budget as the “Accelerated Statewide Farm to Market Paving Program.”
Another $23 million in estimated surplus funds was designated for paving rural roads through County Transportation Committees (CTCs), which largely are controlled by county legislative delegations.
The action by Ways and Means comes after The Nerve repeatedly has pointed out that relatively few major repaving or road reconstruction projects have been completed since the gas-tax-hike law took effect.
“Although we have passed a gas tax, I want to remind everybody we’re only halfway through the implementation of the gas tax,” Ways and Means chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said in a (Charleston) Post and Courier story. “But what I hope to do today is accelerate some of those plans so we can try to move things forward.”
As The Nerve previously has reported, the state is expected to have a general fund surplus of at least $1.8 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The Ways and Means Committee last week passed a $32.3 billion state budget version, which includes state, federal and “other” funds.
In its 2018-20 “Strategic Plan,” DOT set a goal of increasing the percentage of “good” rural roads, described as “farm-to-market” roads, from 19 percent in 2016 to 40 percent by 2026. In comparison, the agency plans to increase the percentage of “good” interstate “pavements” from 65 percent in 2016 to 92 percent by 2026.
In passing the gas-tax-hike law, which raised the state gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years and increased other vehicle taxes and fees, lawmakers promised that the money would be used to fix South Carolina’s deteriorating roads and bridges. DOT has said 80 percent of the state’s approximately 42,000 miles or roads needs resurfacing or rebuilding, and identified 465 out of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges to be replaced.
Yet as of Jan. 31, DOT had designated a total of 3,256 miles of “pavements” projects statewide, which represented less than 10 percent of the total state-maintained roads that the agency says needs to be fixed, record show. And the agency has earmarked more than $257 million, or about 19.5 percent of the total $1.3 billion in overall project “commitments,” for interstate widenings.
Longtime Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, last year created a Senate panel, called the “Special Interstate Subcommittee,” to study accelerating interstate expansion. Leatherman, who is chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, sits on the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) board, which over the years funneled several billion dollars to large construction projects in select counties.
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 DOT to divert revenues to the STIB to pay off bond debts.
Following is a list of the 16 counties in which the total dollar amount of completed “pavements” projects was less than 20 percent of the overall estimated cost of all such projects in those counties as of Jan. 31. The breakdown, based on DOT records, shows the total dollar amount of completed projects and the corresponding completion percentage in parentheses.
Greenwood: $3.5 million
Newberry: $3.2 million (
Fairfield: $2.1 million
Richland: $5.3 million
Bamberg: $1.5 million
Anderson: $6.9 million
Charleston: $4.5 million
Barnwell: $1.7 million
Laurens: $2.6 million
Orangeburg: $2.9 million
Georgetown: $2.7 million
Horry: $6.4 million
Lexington: $1.3 million
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.