By RICK BRUNDRETT
Too soon. Too cold. Too rainy. Too few workers.
Since the state law went into effect on July 1, 2017, hiking the gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years and increasing other vehicle taxes and fees, state transportation officials and others have offered various reasons why few of South Carolina’s bad roads and bridges have been fixed.
Lawmakers promised that gas-tax-hike revenues would be used to repair the state’s pothole-riddled roads and crumbling bridges in their constituents’ communities. But as The Nerve has repeatedly pointed out, relatively little has been spent, and few major projects have been completed statewide.
The Nerve reported earlier this month that through March, the S.C. Department of Transportation had completed no road reconstruction or significant repaving projects in more than half of the state’s 46 counties with gas-tax-hike money, though the agency had nearly $467 million in reserves, which represented about 76 percent of the total $615.2 million in collected revenues over the period.
The South Carolina Asphalt Pavement Association (SCAPA), a trade organization representing road contractors, asphalt producers and other related companies, is publicly pushing for more road workers, noting on its website there are “over 350 jobs available across the state of South Carolina.”
The Nerve’s latest review of gas-tax-hike records provided by DOT, which last fiscal year paid $16,705 to SCAPA, and state comptroller general records found that road contractors as a group are well-funded by taxpayers, with plenty of money to hire more workers if needed.
From July 1, 2017, through March of this year, DOT paid a total of $95.5 million to 23 road contractors out of the gas-tax-hike fund. But that amount represented just 11 percent of the collective $865.3 million paid by DOT to those companies over the approximately same 21-month period.
That finding could partly explain why relatively few gas-tax-hike projects have been finished.
While road contractors are getting paid for identified gas-tax-hike projects, a number of those companies also are working on other big jobs funded through DOT, including interstate-improvement projects, records show.
Take, for example, the Connecticut-based Lane Construction Corp., which led all paid 23 road contractors through March with a total of $13 million in gas-tax-hike payments from DOT. Overall, the company which, according its website, has 5,600 employees and is owned by the Salini Impregilo Group headquartered in Italy, received a total of $127 million from DOT through February this year, state comptroller general records show.
In an email Monday to The Nerve, Lane spokeswoman Lauralee Heckman said the company is working on the construction of a road connecting the Port of Charleston to Interstate 26 and related interstate improvements, which when completed will “allow for the uninterrupted flow of goods to inland areas along the east coast,” according to the company’s website.
DOT records provided recently to The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act show that $216.2 million has been spent so far on the project. On its website, Lane says it was awarded a $101 million contract for the project in 2016.
The port access road isn’t the only big-ticket project in South Carolina that Lane is handling. In March last year, DOT awarded the company a $181.7 million contract to widen an 8-mile stretch of Interstate 85 in Cherokee County.
C.R. Jackson Inc., which has offices in Columbia, Darlington and Conway, says on its website that it’s working on “rehabilitation” projects on a 26-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in the Orangeburg County area, and a 20-mile section of Interstate 26 in Richland and Lexington counties. The company had the second-highest amount – $9.7 million – in gas-tax-hike payments over the 21-month period; through February, it had received a total of $114.2 million from DOT, records show.
Of the total 2,693 vendors paid by DOT in fiscal 2018, which ended last June 30, 13 road contractors paid with gas-tax-hike money made the agency’s top-25 highest-paid vendors for that year, The Nerve’s review found. Three of those road contractors – C.R. Jackson, Palmetto Corp. and Lane Construction – were the highest-paid DOT vendors that year, respectively, according to the agency’s annual report.
DOT has identified just over $1 billion in road and bridge work statewide – nearly a quarter of which is designated as interstate widenings, as The Nerve has reported previously. On its website, the agency says gas-tax-hike revenues, along with other federal and state funds, “form the financial foundation of SCDOT’s ten-year plan and performance targets.”
A road contractor who asked not to be identified told The Nerve recently he doesn’t know from which DOT accounts his company is paid.
“It just says a payment from the South Carolina Highway Department,” he said. “You never see where the money is coming from, as far as what accounts or things like that.”
The contractor said he wonders how DOT prioritizes road projects, adding: “To be honest with you, I don’t know how they pick roads. It seems like some of things they do, they could probably put that money somewhere else.”
DOT chief Christy Hall did not respond last week to written questions from The Nerve about road contractor payments.
The Nerve’s latest review of DOT records found that of 414 road projects through March for which contractors received gas-tax-hike payments, 191, or 46 percent, were designated as “preservation” or “safety improvement” projects. According to DOT’s website, “preservation” projects include such things as “chip sealing” and “crack sealing”; its “Rural Roads Safety Program” covers such things as adding guardrails and rumble strips, and widening shoulders.
Following is a list of road contractors that have received a total of at least $5 million in gas-tax-hike payments since July 1, 2017, followed by the overall amounts paid to those companies by DOT over the period, according to DOT and comptroller general records:
- Lane Construction Corp.: $13,027,313 $127,084,430;
- C.R. Jackson Inc.: $9,754,780 $114,205,948;
- King Asphalt Inc.: $9,214,479 $42,903,978;
- Sanders Brothers Construction Co: $9,075,854 $22,362,361;
- Rogers Group Inc.: $8,337,180 $53,016,216;
- Palmetto Corp.: $8,103,371 $116,402,456;
- Satterfield Construction Co.: $6,921,891 $85,174,406;
- Sloan Construction: $6,333,873 $72,524,492; and
- Lynches River Contracting Inc.: $5,432,278 $44,809,622
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.
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