Fiscal ‘21 ends with huge gas-tax-hike surplus amid unfinished projects

August 6, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Stuck in a pothole.

For the fiscal year that ended June 30, a special fund created with the 2017 state gas-tax-hike law had an $896.1 million surplus – a 50% increase compared to the end of fiscal 2020, records show. Total collected revenues also grew by about the same rate over the one-year period to almost $2 billion.

But despite being flush with taxpayer money, the S.C. Department of Transportation isn’t anywhere close to fixing most of the state’s bad roads and bridges.

From July 1, 2017, when the gas-tax-hike law took effect, through June 30 this year, the total dollar value of completed “pavements” – repaving or road reconstruction – projects was $662.2 million, less than 50% of the $1.35 billion estimated cost of all such projects in the state’s 46 counties, The Nerve found in a review of recently released DOT records.

Although records show that DOT added 1,236 more miles of bad roads to be fixed from the end of fiscal 2020 to the end of fiscal 2021, the 48.9% overall completion rate statewide as of June 30 remained virtually unchanged over the one-year period.

Twenty-six counties, including the larger counties of Charleston, Lexington and Richland, failed to hit the 50% mark as of June 30 this year, The Nerve’s review found.

Even if DOT completes all 4,548 miles of “pavements” projects statewide, it would represent only 13.5% of the approximately 33,600 miles of state-maintained roads that the agency says need to be repaved or rebuilt.

The Nerve in May reported that DOT plans to add 683 repaving or reconstruction projects statewide totaling 977 miles and costing an estimated $472 million.

The agency has said 80% of the state’s approximately 42,000 miles of roads need to be repaved or rebuilt, and also identified 465 out of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges to be replaced. Last month, The Nerve revealed that only three bridge projects in the state had been completed with gas-tax-hike money.

In passing the gas-tax-hike law, which raised the state gasoline tax by 12 cents per gallon over six years – a 75% jump from the base 16 cents – and increased other vehicle taxes and fees, lawmakers promised the money would be used to fix the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.

As of June 30, the special fund created with the law, known as the “Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund,” had received $1.99 billion in total deposits – about $148 million more than the overall project “commitments” identified by DOT, agency records show.

But of the approximately $1.85 billion in total “commitments” statewide, nearly $200 million, or about 11%, is designated for “rural road safety” projects, such as widening shoulders and adding guardrails, while another $271.9 million, or about 15%, would be used for interstate widenings – not for repaving or reconstruction of existing roads.

In 2019, longtime Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who is the Senate Finance Committee chairman, created a special Senate panel to study accelerating interstate expansion. Leatherman also sits on the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank board, which over the years funneled several billion dollars to select counties for large construction projects.

Compared to May 31 of this year, the total value of completed “pavements” projects statewide as of June 30 grew by $34.8 million, or 5.5%, though jumps in the following five counties made up the bulk of the overall increase: Georgetown ($10.5 million), Anderson ($6.8 million), Newberry ($5.6 million), Oconee ($5 million) and Horry ($4.2 million), The Nerve’s latest review found.

Twelve counties showed no change over the one-month period.

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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