Longtime Senator: Deteriorating Roads a Result of Government Structure, Not Lack of Money

February 25, 2016

Inside Insight

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That’s what he said three years ago, anyway.

Over the last several years, The Nerve has published scores of stories about how the state’s transportation agencies – the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) – are run by unaccountable boards whose members are appointed by self-seeking and self-enriching legislators. Virtually no one but these legislators and board members themselves even bothers to disagree anymore, so obvious has the dysfunction of our road funding system become.

The corollary of this point has been made repeatedly by our parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council, and it’s this: The reason for the state’s deplorable transportation infrastructure is not a lack of money but an opaque and convoluted structure of governance in which no one is accountable for failure.

During last year’s and this year’s legislative session, the majority of lawmakers have taken the opposite view. They think the way to address our roads problem is by raising more revenue – hiking taxes and fees – and dumping the new money into an unreformed DOT and STIB.

It turns out, though, that a longtime and highly influential senator – Harvey Peeler (R-Cherokee), the Senate majority leader – agrees wholeheartedly with the Policy Council’s position.

Or rather, he used to.

Copied below is an op-ed Sen. Peeler wrote in September of 2012. (It was reprinted in The State and many other papers as well.) It’s a zinger of a piece, and we suspect many of our readers will appreciate its directness and logic. But we have to wonder: What’s changed? Was it Gov. Haley blessing the idea of a tax increase in her 2015 State of the State address? We have no idea.

What we do know is that we agree with a slightly younger Sen. Peeler. Enjoy.

Charleston gets asphalt as the rest of S.C. gets to wait

By HARVEY PEELER

When a conservative think tank and the environmentalists team up to criticize the same state agency, they’re probably on to something.

Our system of funding roads is just about as broken as it gets, with a recent decision by the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank being the prime example.

Last month, the Infrastructure Bank took a vote to build an eight-mile extension of the Mark Clark Expressway in Charleston, despite the fact that its bonding capacity is used up and the project is wildly unpopular locally.

Or to put it in language folks outside the State House might use, the bank spent money we don’t have on a project we don’t need and the people don’t want.

Worse, the bank is force-feeding asphalt to Charleston, while the rest of South Carolina is on a starvation diet.

Seeing this, the conservative S.C. Policy Council and the environmentalist Coastal Conservation League — two groups rarely singing off of the same sheet of music — have teamed up to point out just how corrupt our system for funding infrastructure has become.

I think they’re onto something.

Anybody who drives has seen the sorry shape of our roads. In my neck of the woods, we have see-through bridges, with more holes than Swiss cheese. In Cowpens, Exit 83 is in such disrepair that you have to drive through the parking lot of Mountain View Baptist Church to get back onto Interstate 85. I-26 is a parking lot on many weekends between Charleston and Columbia.

Meanwhile, since the Infrastructure Bank was created in 1997, it has doled out about $4 billion, with a little more than $2 billion going to just two counties — Charleston and Horry. In fact, only 11 of our 46 counties have ever even gotten a penny of funding.

The state Department of Transportation estimates that it would cost $20 billion just to bring all our roads and bridges up to what is considered “adequate.”

Let’s think about that for a second: We need $20 billion to make our existing roads safe, and the Infrastructure Bank is busy spending another $4 billion on new roads in the backyards of politically connected legislators and the tourism lobby. It’s like a farmer borrowing money to buy a new Corvette when the wheels of his tractor are falling off.

That latest Charleston boondoggle — which, it’s worth remembering, was built with promised money above and beyond what we’re already authorized to borrow — has never even been ranked by the state Transportation Department as a funding priority. It’s only ranked 15th on a list of Charleston priorities.

Why do we even have a separate board from the Transportation Department buying bells and whistles for our road system?

Of course, it’s not like the Transportation Department is any better. What’s its top priority? An interchange for an interstate that hasn’t even been built, and may never wind up being built. I-73, which is supposed to go from Detroit to Myrtle Beach, will cost us more than $1 billion just to reach the N.C. line.

Now I’m no expert, but the times I’ve been to Myrtle Beach and looked around at the license plates, it didn’t seem to me like folks from Michigan and Ohio are having any trouble getting here.

The seven-member Transportation Department and the seven-member State Infrastructure Bank are driving our state into a ditch. Fourteen people making road-funding decisions. As the old saying goes, “When everybody is in charge, no one is in charge.”

It’s true in business, and it’s true in government. We have a rogue Infrastructure Bank committing money that doesn’t exist to a project we don’t need and a state Transportation Department where an unaccountable commission controls everything from traffic lights to curb cuts.

If we’re going to move our state forward, we’ve got to stop funding infrastructure based on favor swapping and horse trading. We’ve got to put first things first: Fix the roads we have and stop building new ones based on which legislator has the most pull or which special interest screams the loudest.

I pledge to work with the Policy Council, the Coastal Conservation League and any other group that wants to make this the reality for South Carolina.

Harvey Peeler, a Republican, represents Cherokee County in the state Senate. He also is Senate majority leader. Contact him at harvey@harveypeeler.com.