The Taxpayer-Funded Road to Nowhere
By Ashley Landess
One of my friends recently said about Charleston that “you can find everything in the Holy City: the best restaurants, shopping, museums, historical sites – everything except a pothole.”
It makes sense that Charleston would have the best roads in the state, given the powerful delegation that controls the State Infrastructure Bank Board and has poured more than $1 billion from the Bank into Charleston County (and a few other counties that, coincidentally enough, were represented by other SIB Board members).
Road dollars have always been the main course for the pork buffet in the State House, but the most recent controversial road project in Charleston has upped the game significantly and is raising questions about the motive of the state’s most powerful legislator in securing funds to finish the 526 project in Charleston.
The funds for this project, which has been pushed hard by Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston), were leveraged by the SIB on bonding capacity that won’t even be available until 2020. It’s not clear if that practice is legal (although it obviously should not be), but it is clear that the project still isn’t on any priority list for the state or the city. And yet another $130-$150 million is waiting on approval for the project, on top of the already approved $400-plus million.
This practice took borrowing money for roads – not a good idea to begin with – to a new level of irresponsibility.
While 36 counties received no money from the State Infrastructure Bank, Charleston and a few other counties (Florence County, for example – home to Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman) are doing just fine with billions of dollars poured into their road projects.
The Department of Transportation initially declined to take on the project, but recently board members had a “change of heart” and approved it. Interestingly enough, Harrell himself showed up to the meeting to champion to speak for 526. Coastal Conservation League Director Dana Beach testified at that hearing, and remarked that surely the politicians who were there to push for it were going to explain why the project was so much more important than all the others that would benefit so many more South Carolinians. Not surprisingly, no one bothered to address that question.
Harrell and other politicians (including the governor) have boasted that they addressed road repairs without raising taxes. They failed to mention that they added hundreds of millions more to our debt by borrowing the money. Typical “State House economics.” Our debt continues to rise while only a few counties see any benefit to road dollars. The roads in many of the 36 counties that got no funding from the SIB are desperately in need of repair, but those taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the 526 completion while getting no relief.
The Interstate 526 Extension is no more than an expensive boondoggle favored (for whatever reason) by a few powerful politicians including the Speaker. It won’t benefit taxpayers or property owners, and it’s likely to bear substantial environmental costs. Whatever the benefit to politicians, however, it will come at our expense. It’s yet another example of the power of a few at the expense of the many.