Gas-tax-hike piggy bank keeps growing fatter

April 30, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Through March, a special fund created with the state gas-tax-hike law had a cash balance of nearly $824 million and racked up more than $26 million in investment earnings on surpluses since July 2017, records show.

The $823.8 million surplus in the “Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund” as of March 31 represented nearly 46% of the $1.79 billion in total collected revenues under the 2017 law, The Nerve found in a review of recently released S.C. Department of Transportation and state comptroller general records.

To put the massive cash reserve in some perspective, it represents about $161 for every man, woman and child in South Carolina, based on just-released U.S. Census figures for 2020. The surplus also is more than the entire annual budgets of the vast majority of state agencies.

The gas-tax-hike law, which took effect July 1, 2017, raised the state gasoline tax by 12 cents per gallon over six years – a 75% jump from the base 16 cents – plus increased other vehicle taxes and fees.

Lawmakers promised that the money would be used to fix the state’s deteriorating road and bridges. DOT has said that 80% of the state’s approximately 42,000 miles of roads should be resurfaced or rebuilt, and identified 465 of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges to be replaced.

But The Nerve’s latest review of DOT records found that from July 1, 2017, through March 31 of this year, the total value of completed “pavements” projects statewide was $581.6 million, or 44% of the $1.31 billion estimated cost of all such projects.

Of the state’s 46 counties, 32 fell below the 50% completion mark, including the larger counties of Horry (48%), Lexington (39.9%) and Richland (37.9%). Completion rates ranged from 14.4% in Dillon County to 81.9% in Chesterfield County, The Nerve’s review found.

And even if all of DOT’s identified 4,468 miles of paving projects through March 31 are completed, it would represent only 13% of the total number of miles of state-maintained roads that the agency says need to be resurfaced or rebuilt.

The Nerve last week revealed that DOT over the past three years denied more than half of the nearly 2,300 pothole-damage claims filed by motorists statewide. In typical denial letters, the agency says it’s not legally responsible to pay for damages if it didn’t know beforehand about the pothole – though it apparently knows where many potholes are located, claiming it patched more than 679,000 statewide in fiscal 2020.

DOT also plans to spend $268.9 million in gas-tax-hike revenues – 15% of the total $1.77 billion in project “commitments” statewide identified by DOT as of March 31 – on interstate widening projects instead of fixing existing bad roads and bridges. The amount designated for interstate widenings grew by about $10.4 million from the previous month, records show.

Longtime state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who sits on the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) board, created a special Senate panel in 2019 to study accelerating interstate expansion. The STIB 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 was written in a way to divert revenues to the STIB to pay off bond debts.

The Nerve’s latest review found that as of March 31, the $823.8 million surplus was $12.2 million less than the total amount of vendor payments made since the gas-tax-hike law took effect. The cash balance grew by $35.7 million, or 4.5%, from the previous month.

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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