Lawmakers trying to shift focus away from gas-tax-hike woes?

November 3, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

As a special legislative panel considers a yet-to-be-revealed road funding proposal, the state Department of Transportation continues to plod along in fixing South Carolina’s bad roads and bridges while sitting on a massive reserve created with the 2017 gas-tax-hike law.

Recently released DOT records show that through September, a special fund created with the law had a cash balance of $895.1 million, which represented more than 42% of the $2.1 billion in revenues collected since the law took effect on July 1, 2017.

The law raised the state’s gasoline tax by 12 cents per gallon over six years – a 75% hike over the base 16 cents – plus increased other vehicle taxes and fees. As of Sept. 30, the state had collected nearly $48 million more than the total project “commitments” identified by DOT, agency records show.

Meanwhile, the total value of completed repaving or road reconstruction projects in the state’s 46 counties through September was less than 50% of the estimated cost of all such projects funded with gas-tax-hike revenues – a completion rate that hasn’t budged much this year, The Nerve’s latest review found.

Last week, the Senate Finance “Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding Modernization Subcommittee” in its second meeting again claimed that an increase in electric and hybrid vehicles threatens the existing road-funding system, which largely is based on gas tax revenues, though the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization – pointed out contradictory evidence presented during that meeting.

The special five-member subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, was assembled by longtime Finance Committee chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who in 2019 created another Senate panel to study accelerating interstate expansion. Although lawmakers promised that gas-tax-hike revenues would be used to repair existing roads and bridges, nearly $272 million, or more than 13%, of all project “commitments” through September was designated for interstate widenings, DOT records show.

The Nerve’s latest review of DOT records found that Leatherman’s home county of Florence had an estimated $77.3 million in identified “pavements” projects as of Sept. 30, which ranked second only to Horry County, with a total $27.8 million in completed projects, putting the county fifth overall in that category. Florence County has the 13th-largest population among the state’s counties, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

But Florence County was among 27 counties, including the larger counties of Charleston and Lexington, which as of Sept. 30 hadn’t reached the 50% mark when comparing the total value of completed “pavements” projects to the collective estimated cost of all such projects in each of those counties, The Nerve’s review found.

The Nerve in September revealed, based on a review of DOT records, that major repaving or reconstruction projects statewide could take on average at least a year and possibly more than two years to complete. The Nerve also reported then that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state’s roads a “D” grade in its annual infrastructure report card.

DOT has said that 80% of the state’s approximately 42,000 miles of roads need to be repaved or rebuilt, and identified 465 out of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges to be replaced.

As of Sept. 30, DOT had listed 5,209 miles of “pavements” projects statewide to be funded with gas-tax-hike revenues, though that number represented 15.5% of the overall approximately 33,600 miles of roads that the agency says have to be resurfaced or reconstructed.

Through September, DOT had completed $720 million in “pavements” projects in the state’s 46 counties, which represented 46.04% of the total $1.56 billion estimated cost of all such projects, The Nerve’s latest review found.

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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