House Bill Would Create Exception to DOT’s Priority List

December 27, 2013

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Money LoopholesThe governing board of the S.C. Department of Transportation could ignore its state-mandated priority list of road projects for other proposals with “substantial immediate economic benefit,” under a recently filed House bill.

Rep. Don Bowen, R-Anderson and the author of H. 4376, told The Nerve he believes his bill, prefiled on Dec. 3, is necessary because smaller, less urbanized counties such as Anderson often are bypassed by the DOT Commission for state funding for major road projects.

“The way they’ve got their priorities set is that all the big cities will get all the money,” said Bowen, a retired executive with the Bi-Lo grocery store chain.

State law (Section 57-1-370 of the S.C. Code of Laws) requires that the DOT Commission “establish a priority list of projects to the extent permitted by federal laws or regulations.” In establishing the list, the commission must take into consideration “at least the following criteria”:

  • Financial viability of the project;
  • Public safety;
  • Potential for economic development;
  • Traffic volume and congestion;
  • Truck traffic;
  • The “pavement quality index”;
  • Environmental impact;
  • Alternative transportation solutions; and
  • Consistency with local land-use plans.

Under Bowen’s bill, the commission “in regard to a proposed project which is not on the priority list of projects” could add another project to the list “in whatever priority position it determines if the commission finds the proposed project will have a substantial immediate economic benefit not only to the area concerned, but to the State as a whole.”

“Substantial immediate economic benefit” is not defined in the bill. Bowen said his bill would apply to situations in which “you have a big company coming into your area and you don’t have the infrastructure to accommodate that.”

Bowen said, for example, Interstate 85 in Anderson County from the Georgia line needs to be widened to three lanes in each direction to handle traffic coming from and going to the Atlanta area. Widening I-85, would attract more large companies to his county, he contended.

“We’ve got a lot of vacant property on I-85,” he said. “We could give them better access on frontage roads to I-85.”

Asked if his bill would allow the DOT Commission to show favoritism to a particular company wanting to locate or expand in South Carolina, Bowen replied, “I think it will level the playing field for attracting companies, not giving an inordinate benefit to a particular company.”

Bowen’s bill likely will be taken up in committee after the legislative session starts Jan. 14.

The DOT has estimated the state will need an additional $29 billion over the next 20 years to maintain the state’s existing roads and bridges. Over the past 16 years, the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board has funneled several billions of dollars for large projects mainly in the Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Greenville areas – decisions that critics contend were based mainly on political considerations instead of objective criteria.

The Legislature this year passed a bill (H. 3360) directing $50 million through DOT to the Infrastructure Bank, which officials say will be used by the bank to leverage a planned $500 million in bonds for “bridge replacement, rehabilitation projects and expansions and improvements to mainline interstates.”

The new law requires DOT to submit a list of road and bridge projects to the Infrastructure Bank board for “its consideration,” though the board isn’t required to follow the list.

That loophole was pushed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who also is a member of the Infrastructure Bank board, as The Nerve reported in June.

The Nerve in April reported that a concrete company that Leatherman once led and owns stock in has received more than $30 million in state funding over the past 20 years, mainly through DOT contracts.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.