Anyone Know Who Sets Road Funding Priorities?

February 11, 2016

Inside Insight

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Sen. Peeler expresses confusion. And who can blame him?

This week, the Senate Finance Committee met on the subject of road funding. The discussion ranged from excruciatingly boring to highly revelatory. In the latter category – at least in our view – was Mike Wooten’s comparison of this website to bathroom graffiti. Wooten, of course, is the chairman of the Department of Transportation Commission, and he had been the subject of a Nerve report the day before he made that comment.

Another terrific moment occurred when Sen. Harvey Peeler, the Senate’s majority leader and one of the longest serving members of the chamber, expressed genuine confusion about which agency or official sets priorities for road construction and maintenance.  Is it DOT?  How about the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, or STIB? Or a combination of these two agencies?

It’s a fair question – one any South Carolinian might legitimately ask – although one would think a longtime state senator would know the answer without having to ask in a public meeting.

And the answer, of course, is that nobody really knows.

DOT in fact maintains a priority list (it’s required to post that list by a budget proviso – 86.16 if you’re interested). But although the list, or rather lists, plural, are available prominently on the DOT’s website, they are broken out into several categories, and you don’t really have a sense of where a single project ranks overall. Further, the lists indicate that some projects marked “underway” have a lower priority ranking than projects marked “planned” or even “not active.” So what’s the point of the priority list?

All of this is complicated by the fact that the STIB board seems to set the agency’s priorities, apparently without DOT authority – making the whole subject of road project prioritization a giant mess.

The fact that this is even a question is pretty amazing. Of course the Department of Transportation should be the only agency to prioritize road funding, and the STIB should either be folded into the DOT or abolished altogether.

There should be no question about who sets road funding priorities. That is an administrative function of the entire state, and it should fall under a public official elected by the entire state: the governor. Yet South Carolina lawmakers insist on making it a function of quasi-anonymous boards and commissions staffed by people appointed by the legislature. The latest attempt to “reform” the road funding system by encouraging accountability, for example, is a giant convoluted mess. Take a look.

—The editors