Bad Roads: Who’s Really in Charge Here?

April 28, 2015

Inside Insight

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bad roads

CONVENIENTLY, NO ONE’S RESPONSIBLE.
WHICH IS JUST THE WAY LAWMAKERS WANT IT.

A few days ago, we were forwarded a message from a South Carolinian who’s pretty upset by the conditions of the road he drives on every day. Our reader emailed his state senator about several roads he drives on every day, and he asked whether an increased gas tax would result in these roads being repaired.

One of the roads – it’s actually a bridge – is pictured above. It’s so bad, in fact, that you can see the wretched thing’s decay from Google Earth.

Anyhow, our friend’s question struck us as entirely legitimate. If taxpayers end up being forced to pay more at the gas pump, and if elected officials tell them that the increased revenue will be used to repair their roads, why shouldn’t they ask their lawmakers if the roads they drive on stand any chance of being fixed?

The lawmaker’s response was as follows:

I don’t know that we can answer those questions. The legislature doesn’t make the decision as to which roads get paved and when (surprisingly . . . thankfully). SCDOT makes those decisions based on specific engineering criteria. SCDOT may have those projects on a list already. If that’s the case, we could probably get that answer.

We would give the (anonymous) lawmakers full credit for actually responding to a potentially critical question from a constituent. Very often lawmakers simply ignore those. The answer didn’t satisfy that constituent, however, and he responded with another question:

How, then, do we know what we will get for the tax increase? How do we determine if the cost is worth the benefit?

Another excellent question, in our view. We’re appending a portion of the lawmaker’s response:

We should see better maintenance within a few months of the money coming in. Resurfacing and bridge work will take a little longer to ramp up because it takes time to plan and let the contracts. So it may be a few years before we’re able to see a lot of the results.

So to recap: All the decisions are made at DOT and lawmakers have no real control, and if lawmakers do raise taxes, taxpayers won’t see significant results for another few years.

In other words, no one’s in charge, and there’s no telling if your roads will be fixed or not. Well that’s awfully convenient if you happen to be a state lawmakers who’s about to vote for a massive tax increase that will affect every South Carolinian who drives a car. But how accurate is it, really? Is it really true that the “legislature doesn’t make the decision as to which roads get paved and when”?

Well, yes – technically.

But actually – no.

The DOT Commission sets policy at the DOT. The Commission decides how most of the state’s gas tax revenue and federal matching dollars will be spent, and seven of its eight members are appointed by legislative delegations – that is, by lawmakers.

And the pool from which these delegations draw qualified candidates is screened first by the Joint Transportation Review Committee, a panel made up of 10 members whose appointments are controlled by legislative leaders.

Convoluted as it is, this legislature-dominated system is genius in its way: It leaves no one for the average South Carolinian to call and ask about specific roads. The legislature controls the entire funding system, but at no point can you find a lawmaker who will admit that he and his colleagues have a say in which roads get funded and which don’t.

Citizens are left having to call or email their House and Senate members. And why shouldn’t they? It’s lawmakers, after all, who make the important decisions. It’s not DOT Commissioners, and it’s certainly not the governor, who only has one of the eight appointments on the Commission.

So yes: You have every right to ask your House or Senate member whether t hat decrepit old road you drive on every day will get fixed any time soon. And when you do ask, let us know what kind of answer you get. Write to us at news@thenerve.org.