DOT Restructuring: Real Change, Or Just a Facade?

March 1, 2012

Investigative Reports

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BridgeAs separate bills aimed at restructuring the state Department of Transportation progress through the S.C. General Assembly, some legislators and outside groups are concerned the proposals would only lead to more politicized funding of transportation projects.

These observers also worry that the bills would give more power to legislators while providing a facade of streamlining government.

“There is no structural reform that will in itself solve the problem,” Dana Beach, founder and director of the Coastal Conservation League, told The Nerve. “We’ve gone through this restructuring before, and it’s not enough. Any system, we’ve proven in this state, can be corrupted. That’s the problem in South Carolina.”

The Senate Transportation Committee voted Wednesday to send back to subcommittee a bill that would abolish the seven-member Transportation Commission that currently governs DOT. Under that bill, a secretary of transportation appointed by the governor would become responsible for planning and coordinating the state’s transportation projects.

The committee voted 8-6 to strike the section of the bill eliminating the Transportation Commission and to discuss other restructuring proposals in subcommittee. All other parts of the bill remain intact.

The bill, S. 1162, was introduced by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley and the committee chairman.

Grooms’ bill also would create a Joint Transportation Planning Review Committee comprised of 10 legislators from the Senate and House. The committee would annually advise the transportation secretary on which projects should be included in the secretary’s yearly and long-range statewide transportation plans.

The secretary could implement the state’s transportation plans only after receiving comment from the legislative panel.

Grooms’ bill also creates a second joint committee, called the Review and Oversight Committee of the Department of Transportation, charged with conducting periodic oversight hearings of DOT and screening any candidates nominated by the governor to serve as secretary of transportation.

A candidate would need to first be screened by this joint committee and then by the entire Senate before being approved to serve. The Senate would not be able to review a candidate who has already been rejected by the joint committee.

In the Senate Transportation Committee meeting two weeks ago, Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said it does not make sense for legislators to continually create more and more special and joint committees for individual issues.

“It seems that we keep making these special committees to perform functions that this committee’s supposed to perform,” said Campsen. “And the problem with that is I know I’ve been personally left off committees, intentionally, on particular subjects because the person who has the power to appoint that special committee doesn’t like the position I have on some issues regarding that state agency.”

Campsen said that because senators and representatives in leadership positions are the ones who appoint which legislators serve on special and joint committees, legislators need to “line up their votes” to be appointed to committees that interest them. As a result, Campsen said, only “power leaders in the Senate” have the power to make decisions on which areas of the state receive funding for projects.

“For example, there are some senators in this state who have no Ports Authority facilities in the state. I have four,” said Campsen. “But I’m not on the joint Ports Authority oversight committee.

“If it was the full committee, which is vested appropriately with the oversight, I’d have some oversight. I’m not even in the position where I can exercise oversight with them except to say, ‘Please do something for the Ports Authority, if you’d be so kind.’”

Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee and a Transportation Committee member, told The Nerve that while he supports Grooms’ bill because he sees a need for some sort of DOT restructuring, it would make more sense for the oversight function to remain with the full standing committees than with special or joint committees.

“Most of the time, though, what makes the most sense is what doesn’t happen in Columbia,” Peeler said.

Need for Objective Criteria

Beach said simply moving oversight of the state’s transportation plan from the Transportation Commission to the Legislature will not result in real change at DOT. What is needed, he said, is for transportation funding to be subject to objective criteria and a statewide focus so that it does not become politicized.

“More than anyone could imagine, we’re converting hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars from legislative needs to political needs,” he said.

Beach said that when DOT was last restructured through the passage of Act 114 in 2007, the department added objective guidelines to its policies. For example, Act 114 required that DOT consider factors such as traffic volume and public safety when deciding which projects to prioritize.

Those criteria were supposed to be applied toward funding for all transportation projects in the state, but DOT has since interpreted the act to apply only to roads already in existence, Beach said. He said DOT views such guidelines as advisory, not binding, even for existing roadways, and that the department ignores them when considering funding for new construction projects.

“This comes back to transparency, for the need for the public to understand the rationale behind the State Transportation Plan,” said Beach. “The notion that many of these legislators have right now is that they just aren’t getting enough money in their districts.

“Just changing who controls what isn’t going to solve the problem. It could help, but ultimately the system has to set guidelines and parameters to allow rational decisions to be made.”

In addition to creating the two committees, Grooms’ bill requires that audits of DOT be performed by the independent Legislative Audit Council, as opposed to an auditor housed within DOT that the department currently uses. The measure also stipulates that an engineer who leaves employment at DOT may not work for a company who contracts with DOT for the next 12 months.

When The Nerve approached Grooms for comment after Wednesday’s meeting, he declined and walked away.

“If you’re from The Nerve, I can’t talk to you, I’m sorry,” Grooms said.

“A Step in the Wrong Direction”

On the House side, Speaker Pro Tempore Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, has introduced a bill that has passed through the House Judiciary Committee that would likewise abolish the Transportation Commission and transfer its powers to a secretary of transportation.

Lucas’ measure would require that the secretary provide the governor and General Assembly with a prioritized list of all state-funded transportation projects. That list would be available for public viewing online, and the bill includes language stating that the Legislature cannot “select or alter the priority of projects” submitted by the secretary.

However, Lucas’ bill requires that any project whose value exceeds $20 million must be authorized and appropriated as its own line-item in the annual general appropriations bill.

Campsen told The Nerve that such individual funding would have “a very corrosive effect” on the Legislature.

“Every session would develop into a horse-trading process. It would take up so much time, becoming one of those ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back’ kinds of processes,” said Campsen. “That’s not the solution, either.”

David Farren, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center based in Charlottesville, Va., agrees.

“If the Legislature can come in after the fact and yank money from one part of the state and give it to another part of the state,” said Farren, “that’s just inconsistent with federal regulation.

“That’s a level of detail the Legislature shouldn’t be involved with. That should be more properly administered by the engineers.”

Lucas told The Nerve the $20 million threshold means that an individual appropriation would apply only to the state’s largest transportation projects, and that legislators should have some say in how those funds are being allocated.

“We tried to reform this four years ago. The Highway Commission has not done a very good job in managing its finances, I think it’s clear,” said Lucas. “This will give us some checks and balances.”

“All this bill is doing is shifting the responsibility for who makes these decisions, trying to shine some sunlight on the issue,” he said.

Like Grooms’ bill, Lucas’ measure would require that the LAC perform audits of DOT and would require more regular analyses of the department’s cash flow.

The next meeting of the Senate transportation subcommittee set to discuss Grooms’ bill has not been scheduled yet. The House is set to begin debate on Lucas’ bill next week.

Reach Kumar at (803) 254-4411 or amit@thenerve.org.