Interstate projects paid with gas-tax-hike revenues: priority for roads alliance?

July 26, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

On its Facebook page Thursday, the nonprofit South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads shared the latest state Department of Transportation video touting its work in Spartanburg County with gas-tax-hike revenues.

“Seeing is believing! Check out the projects going on in Spartanburg County – all thanks to the new gas tax revenues!” the alliance (SCFOR) said in promoting the video, which focused on work DOT is overseeing on an eight-mile stretch of Interstate 85, and also cited completed projects on I-26 in the county.

But in passing the 2017 gas-tax-hike law, which raised the state gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years and increased other vehicle taxes and fees, legislators promised that the money would be used to fix crumbling roads and bridges in their constituents’ communities – not funneled to interstates. The third 2-cent increase took effect July 1.

After The Nerve in January revealed, citing a DOT document presented at a paving contractors’ conference, that the agency plans to use more than a third of gas-tax-hike revenues on widening and repaving interstates, the department revised its website to more clearly reflect that priority as part of its 10-year plan.

The Nerve has repeatedly pointed out since the gas-tax-hike law took effect on July 1, 2017, relatively little has been spent out of a special state fund created by the law, and few major repaving or reconstruction projects statewide have been completed with those revenues. As of May 31, the fund had a cash balance of nearly $482 million.

As of the end of September 2017, the Columbia-based SCFOR, which publicly pushed for the gas-tax-hike law, listed its members on its website, which included major DOT road contractors. The Nerve in March 2017 reported that at least eight members collectively had received more than $451 million from DOT since 2014.

SCFOR, which was established in 1981, nor longer shows its membership list on its website, but representatives of at least three major road contractors – Palmetto Corp., C.R. Jackson Inc., and Sloan Construction Co. – were members last year of the nonprofit’s board of directors, according to the organization’s federal income-tax return. Over the past two fiscal years, DOT paid a total of more than $327 million to the three companies, state comptroller general records show.

The Nerve in May reported that while road contractors are getting paid for identified gas-tax-hike projects, some of those companies also are working on other big jobs funded through DOT, including interstate improvement projects. The list of companies included the three contractors represented last year on the SCFOR board.

For example, C.R. Jackson Inc., whose CEO, Richard Jackson, serves on the SCFOR board, on its website lists I-26 and I-95 paving and related improvement projects handled by the company, which has offices in Columbia, Darlington and Myrtle Beach. The website also links to the SCFOR site.

As of September 2017, SCFOR, which is a registered state lobbyist principal, listed at least nine other groups that are lobbyist principals as members of the nonprofit, including the Municipal Association of South Carolina, South Carolina Association of Tourism Regions, South Carolina Asphalt Pavement Association, and the South Carolina Trucking Association (SCTA).

The SCTA is headed by Rick Todd, who as of last year was a board member of SCFOR. The executive director of SCFOR is Jennifer Patterson, the organization’s registered lobbyist who previously worked as a lobbyist for the SCTA, according to her LinkedIn account.

Under the “Accomplishments” section of the SCFOR website, the nonprofit noted that in 2018: “No legislators were defeated in the primary elections because of their support of road funding. This can be attributed to hard work of SCFOR and our allies when it came to educating the public on the need for investment.”

SCFOR is a registered 501(c)(4) organization, which legally is allowed to engage in unlimited lobbying and can make contributions to political campaigns in South Carolina with certain limitations.

The Nerve on Friday sent written questions to Patterson asking if the organization was involved in the 2018 legislative primaries, and about the group’s position on whether interstate improvement projects should be given priority with gas-tax-hike revenues. No response was received by publication of this story.

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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