First 2 years of gas-tax-hike law: Little work completed despite fat cash reserves

August 14, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

In the first two years of the gas-tax-hike law, the state collected enough money to pay for three-quarters of the identified $1 billion in road and bridge projects, yet the S.C. Department of Transportation completed or “substantially” completed just 8% of the total projected tab, newly released DOT records show.

As of June 30, no road “pavements” projects had been “substantially” completed in nine counties, The Nerve’s latest review found. In another 15 counties, DOT listed less than 6% of the total projected “pavements” costs as “substantially complete.”

And the department’s latest online records appear to contradict each other: The “Monthly Account Statement” lists $83.17 million, or 8.1%, of $1.026 billion in project “commitments” statewide as “completed,” while the “New Gas Tax Project List” categorizes the $83.17 million as “substantially complete.”

The Nerve in May reported that DOT might not hit its 10-year targets for road and bridge work at the current rate of completed projects.

A special state fund created with the gas-tax-hike law, which took effect on July 1, 2017, had a cash balance of $477.9 million as of June 30, which represented 62% of the $769.2 million in total revenues collected over the two-year period, according to DOT and state comptroller general records.

Expenses through June 30 included $243.8 million in total vendor payments, $34.6 million in transfers to legislatively controlled county transportation committees (CTCs) for county roads, and $12.7 million in transfers to the S.C. Department of Revenue to help cover the cost of gas tax credits created under the 2017 law, records show.

The Nerve’s latest review found that a total of more than $88 million in vendor payments over the two-year period went mainly for “preservation” and “safety improvement” projects in the state’s 46 counties. “Preservation” work includes such things as “crack sealing” and “chip sealing,” while “rural road safety” projects include widening shoulders and adding guardrails, according to DOT’s website.

In raising the state gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years – a 75% jump from the base 16 cents – and increasing other vehicle taxes and fees, lawmakers promised that the money would go toward fixing deteriorating roads and bridges in their constituents’ communities.

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 of the $1 billion in identified road and bridge work to be funded with gas-tax-hike revenues, $246 million, or nearly a quarter of the total, is designated for interstate widenings, according to DOT’s website. The agency revised its site to reflect that amount after The Nerve in January revealed its plans to widen interstates with the revenues.

The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, has contended the gas-tax-hike law was written in a way to allow DOT to divert revenues to pay bond debts of the legislatively controlled State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which funneled several billion dollars over the years to large construction projects in select counties.

Following are the counties with at least $1 million in “substantially complete” road “pavements” projects through June 30, according to DOT records:

  • Greenville: $5,828,302
  • Berkeley: $5,581,878
  • Anderson: $5,558,901
  • Sumter: $5,392,372
  • Aiken: $4,823,035
  • Pickens: $4,793,453
  • Oconee: $4,570,563
  • Marion: $4,473,230
  • Spartanburg: $4,016,141
  • Jasper: $3,841,025
  • York: $3,547,632
  • Dillon: $3,293,793
  • Kershaw: $2,806,046
  • Richland: $2,634,760
  • Marlboro: $2,576,118
  • Darlington: $2,380,368
  • Orangeburg: $2,135,883
  • Dorchester: $2,035,996
  • Lee: $1,419,122
  • Clarendon: $1,256,065
  • Charleston: $1,227,322

In the following 15 counties, DOT recorded less than 6% of the total projected “pavements” costs as “substantially complete”:  Abbeville, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Charleston, Chesterfield, Edgefield, Greenwood, Hampton, Lancaster, Laurens, Lexington, McCormick, Newberry and Saluda.

The following nine counties had no “substantially complete” projects in the “pavements” category through June 30:  Beaufort, Cherokee, Chester, Colleton, Fairfield, Florence, Georgetown, Horry and Williamsburg.

Editor’s Note: The South Carolina Policy Council 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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