By RICK BRUNDRETT
In unveiling his fiscal 2022-23 state budget this week, Gov. Henry McMaster proposed using $660 million in federal coronavirus-relief money to begin construction of Interstate 73 toward Myrtle Beach and widening I-26 between Columbia and Charleston.
McMaster in a letter Monday to lawmakers contended that the federal money combined with nearly $600 million in state surplus funds would allow the S.C. Department of Transportation to “accelerate construction, expansion, or improvements to our State-owned roads, bridges, highways, and interstates.”
Besides the I-73 and I-26 projects, which McMaster publicly announced last year and included in his state budget summary, the governor in his letter Monday also noted widening I-95 in the Lowcountry and additional lane widening of I-85 in the Upstate.
McMaster said $100 million of the approximately $600 million in state surplus money for the fiscal year that starts July 1 could be used to match an additional $250 million annually in new federal infrastructure funds for the next five years to “expedite completion of local and regional projects designed to relieve traffic congestion, to repair or replace over 400 bridges, and to enhance repaving and resurfacing on our local and secondary roads.”
Meanwhile, the S.C. Department of Transportation continues its slow pace in fixing deteriorating state-maintained roads and bridges while sitting on a nearly $1 billion surplus from revenues generated with the 2017 state gas-tax-hike law, The Nerve found in its latest review of agency records.
The Nerve in December revealed that DOT wants approval to spend nearly $139 million more in gas-tax-hike revenues for fiscal 2022-23 in “anticipation for planned road projects,” which weren’t specified in the agency’s budget request. The I-73 construction and I-26 widening projects were included in DOT’s budget request.
The gas-tax-hike law, which took effect July 1, 2017, raised the state gasoline tax by 12 cents per gallon over six years – a 75% jump from the base 16 cents – and increased other vehicle taxes and fees. On top of that, average gas prices statewide hit a seven-year high in October, according to media reports.
In passing the law, legislators promised that the extra money would be used to repair existing roads and bridges in the state. DOT has said 80% of the state’s approximately 42,000 miles of roads need to be repaved or rebuilt, and identified 465 out of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges to be replaced.
DOT, however, has designated nearly $272 million of gas-tax-hike revenues for interstate widenings – not for repairing existing roads or bridges – which as of Nov. 30 represented about 12.5% of the $2.18 billion in total project “commitments” identified by DOT, agency record show.
Through November, the cash balance of a special fund created with the 2017 law was $972.1 million, which represented 43% of the total $2.25 billion in deposits since the law took effect, according to DOT and state comptroller general records. The surplus grew by $17 million compared to the previous month.
The Nerve in September revealed, based on a review of DOT records, that major repaving or road reconstruction projects statewide could take on average at least a year and possibly more than two years to complete. The Nerve also reported that month that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state’s roads a “D” grade in its annual infrastructure report card.
In its latest review, The Nerve found that the total value of completed repaving or road reconstruction projects in the state’s 46 counties through Nov. 30 was $771.2 million, or 45.8% of the $1.68 billion estimated cost of all such projects statewide. The overall rate of completed “pavements” projects remained stuck in the mid-40% range for most of 2021.
Of the state’s 46 counties, 29 fell below the 50% mark as of Nov. 30, including the larger counties of Richland (44%), Lexington (28.5%) and Charleston (35.5%), The Nerve’s review found. Twenty-four counties showed no change in completed “pavements” projects compared to Oct. 31.
Even if DOT completed all of the 5,476 miles of identified “pavements” projects statewide as of Nov. 30, that number would represent slightly more than 16% of the total number of miles of roads that the agency says have to be resurfaced or reconstructed.
“There is no infrastructure more in need of big, bold, and transformative one-time investments than our State’s roads, bridges, highways, and interstates,” McMaster said in his letter Monday to lawmakers about his proposed state budget, adding that the state’s “booming economy and rapid population growth have outpaced the State’s ability to keep up with improvements to our transportation infrastructure.”
The regular legislative session started Tuesday. Lawmakers will consider McMaster’s proposed $36 billion total state budget, which includes federal, state and “other” funds, in drafting their own state spending plans. A final legislative version will be sent to McMaster for consideration of vetoes.
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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