First 2.5 years of gas-tax-hike law: Revenues far outpace completed projects

January 31, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

No paving projects were completed between the end of November and December with gas-tax-hike funds in 37 of South Carolina’s 46 counties, though the state had nearly a half-billion dollars in available cash for those projects, records show.

In the first two-and-a-half years of the gas-tax-hike law, a total of $1.04 billion was collected, which represented 84.3% of the $1.2 billion in project “commitments” identified by the S.C. Department of Transportation, according to agency records. Total revenues in December grew by nearly $81 million, or 8.3%, over the previous month.

That’s more than enough money to finish paving projects identified so far by DOT. Yet as of Dec. 31, listed “pavements” projects totaling $256.7 million, or 30.4% of the overall estimated $843.5 million cost of all such projects, had been completed, The Nerve found in a review of DOT records. Five of the state’s largest counties – Charleston, Greenville, Horry, Lexington and Richard – fell below the 30% mark.

Overall, $456.2 million was paid to vendors over the 30-month period, including tens of millions in payments for “safety improvement” projects such as widening shoulders and adding guardrails, and “preservation” projects, which, according to DOT’s website, can involve “crack sealing” or “chip sealing.”

Another collective $110 million included transfers to the state Department of Revenue to help cover an income tax credit created with the gas-tax-hike law, and to the County Transportation Committee (CTC) program for local road projects.

That left a cash balance of $478 million in a special fund set up under the gas-tax-hike law, according to DOT records.

In passing the law, which raised the state gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years and increased other vehicle taxes and fees, lawmakers promised that the money would be used to fix the state’s crumbling roads and bridges. DOT has said 80% of the state’s approximately 42,000 miles of roads needs resurfacing or rebuilding, and identified 465 out of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges to be replaced.

But as of Dec. 31, DOT had listed 3,110 miles of “pavements” projects statewide, which represented less than 10% of the total state-maintained roads that the agency says need to be fixed.

And DOT has designated nearly $248 million, or 20%, of the $1.2 billion in project “commitments” for interstate widenings, which the agency began to more clearly acknowledge following a Nerve story a year ago.

Last year, powerful state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, created a Senate panel, called the “Special Interstate Subcommittee,” to study accelerating interstate expansion. Leatherman is chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee and sits on the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) board, which over the years funneled several billion dollars to large construction projects in select counties.

The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, has contended the gas-tax-hike law, which took effect July 1, 2017, was written in a way to allow DOT to divert revenues to the STIB to pay off bond debts.

The Nerve’s latest review of DOT records found that only nine of the state’s 46 counties showed increases in the total dollar value of completed “pavements” projects from Nov. 30 to Dec. 31, with York County recording the biggest jump – $7.5 million. The other eight counties showing increases were Abbeville, Beaufort, Cherokee, Jasper, Kershaw, Lee, Orangeburg and Union.

Over the 30-month period, the total listed value of completed projects in 23 counties was less than 30% of the collective estimated cost of all “pavements” projects in those counties. Following is a breakdown of the 23 counties, with the total value of completed projects and the corresponding percentage of the total estimated cost of all “pavements” projects as of Dec. 31:

  • Abbeville: $3.9 million (28.49%);
  • Darlington: $3.8 million (26.71%);
  • Oconee: $6 million (25.81%);
  • Greenville: $7.3 million (22.39%);
  • Laurens: $2.6 million (21.05%);
  • Pickens: $4.7 million (20.94%);
  • Greenwood: $3.5 million (20.02%);
  • Newberry: $3.2 million (19.33%);
  • Fairfield: $2.1 million (19.16%);
  • Richland: $5.3 million (18.02%);
  • Bamberg: $1.5 million (16.69%);
  • Anderson: $6.9 million (15.62%);
  • Charleston: $4.5 million (15.34%);
  • Barnwell: $1.7 million (14.74%);
  • Allendale: $880,954 (13.04%);
  • Orangeburg: $2.9 million (10.77%);
  • Georgetown: $2.7 million (10.61%);
  • Horry: $6.4 million (9.88%);
  • Calhoun: $553,581 (6.69%);
  • Lancaster: $1.3 million (6.68%);
  • Hampton: $586,041 (6.38%);
  • Lexington: $1.3 million (4.96%);
  • Chesterfield: $1 million (3.41%).

Editor’s Note: The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, has launched “Project Road Repair” to encourage citizens to contact their lawmakers about getting their bad roads fixed. To learn more about the project, go here.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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