Got A Problem? Create A State Agency

The NerveImitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but when it’s done by South Carolina lawmakers, it can hit taxpayers in their wallets.

Less than a week after a group of Pee Dee and Lowcountry senators introduced a bill (S. 1323) that would create a new state agency called the “I-95 Corridor Authority,” Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, offered a bill (S. 1339) calling for the creation of the “I-85 Corridor Authority.”

The bills are similar in many respects.  Each authority, for example, would be designated as a “public body, politic and corporate, and an agency of the state.”  Under both bills, the authorities could “receive state funds as appropriated by the General Assembly,” and solicit federal funds and private donations.

The proposed agencies also could hire their own staffs, as well as buy, sell or lease land and other property.  Each authority would be controlled by a board of directors appointed mainly by lawmakers in the corridor areas.

Peeler told The Nerve last week that he got the idea for his bill from the I-95 Corridor Authority bill, sponsored by Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg.

“When the debate started about I-95, I said, ‘Bingo, I need something for I-85,’” Peeler said.

But Peeler said his bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Glenn Reese, D-Spartanburg, doesn’t have the same purpose as the other bill.

“Mine is strictly for infrastructure,” Peeler said, noting his bill is aimed only at widening and doing other improvements to I-85 in five Upstate counties – Cherokee, Spartanburg, Greenville, Oconee and Anderson.

A state Department of Transportation spokesman, however, told The Nerve that a 2006 department study the bill relies on determined that widening I-85 was not an immediate priority.

In a written response last week to The Nerve, Reese said only that he was working with Peeler to “help upgrade the I-85 area around Cherokee and Spartanburg counties.”

Matthews earlier told The Nerve that taxpayer-funded incentives under his bill could be used for a “variety” of economic development projects along the I-95 corridor, which would cover 17 counties.

Both bills, which were introduced in late March, are unlikely to become law this year. Both measures passed the Senate by the end of April, but Peeler’s bill has since stalled in the House Committee on Education and Public Works, while Matthews’ bill hasn’t moved out of the House Ways and Means Committee.

In addition, the House stripped out a Senate budget proviso (89.143) that would have funneled $3 million in tobacco settlement money to a state-created agency known as the S.C. Research Authority, which, under Matthews’ bill, could be hired by the I-95 Corridor Authority to “execute the recommendations” of a study published last year dealing with economic development and other issues along the corridor.

Under Peeler’s bill, the I-85 Corridor Authority would “oversee the implementation of the recommendations” of a feasibility study on widening I-85 in Cherokee and Spartanburg counties, published by the S.C. Department of Transportation in December 2006; and other department studies “related to widening I-85.”

But DOT spokesman Pete Poore told The Nerve last week that the 2006 study, which was conducted according to a 2006-07 budget proviso, was “not an endorsement from SCDOT to widen the corridor at this time.”

“It does state that several segments (of I-85) would be beyond capacity by 2025, and gives estimated costs for widening if it was determined a widening was necessary in the future,” Poore said in a written response.

The study, which covered about 23 miles of I-85 in Cherokee County and another approximate four-mile stretch of interstate in Spartanburg County, found that although traffic counts had grown about 2.14 percent annually from 1995 through 2005, no section of the highway was rated as congested.

The study estimated that widening the approximate 27-mile stretch of I-85 from four to six lanes and making necessary improvements to eight interchanges would cost about $424 million to $575 million. The project would be “substantially complete” over a 10-year period, provided that “sufficient funding was available,” the study said.

Peeler said work needs to start now on the interstate, noting, “If you took that (DOT) calendar, it would take years to widen it, and the study is already several years old.”

“I live there, and I travel there,” Peeler continued. “The road is in disrepair. It’s not wide enough. It’s just a clogged artery. When you get into North Carolina, it’s wide.”

Asked if a new state agency was necessary to accomplish the widening, Peeler replied:  “I was trying every way I possibly could to draw attention. … It got some attention.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.