More than $338 million in gas-tax-hike funds unspent as of end of September

November 14, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

In the first 15 months of the gas-tax-hike law, the S.C. Department of Transportation spent less than 7 percent of the nearly $400 million in collected revenues that lawmakers promised would go toward fixing deteriorating roads and bridges statewide, according to recently released records.

As of Sept. 30, about $25.7 million, or 6.4 percent, of the $398.9 million in receipts since the law took effect on July 1, 2017, had been spent on “project commitments,” DOT records show. The law hiked the gas tax by 12 cents, or 75 percent from the base 16 cents, over six years, and increased other taxes and fees, including raising the vehicle sales-tax cap by $200.

The amount spent through September represented less than 4.5 percent of the nearly $586.3 million in projects statewide identified by DOT – a list that has grown monthly though it provides no specifics of the work to be done under the main categories of “pavements” and “rural road safety.”

DOT was sitting on nearly $338.6 million in gas-tax-hike revenues as of Sept. 30, according to agency and state comptroller general records. DOT has said 80 percent of the state’s 42,000 miles of roads needs to be resurfaced or rebuilt, and identified 465 of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges statewide to be replaced.

Through September, DOT had spent no money from the state “Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund” in 13, or more than a quarter, of the state’s 46 counties, according to the agency’s “IMTF Disbursements” list. In the remaining 33 counties, the amounts spent ranged from $16,634 in Georgetown County to $3.2 million in Greenville County.

DOT added the separate link to the list on its website after The Nerve in August reported that the agency had posted no online details of first-year expenditures under the gas-tax-hike law. The list shows which roads by county have received funding, though there is no clear description of the work done. Instead, projects are grouped mainly under “rehabilitation,” “preservation” and “safety improvement” categories.

DOT and comptroller general records show that an additional $34.6 million was spent from the IMTF as of Sept. 30 through the County Transportation Committee “Donor Bonus” Program, which allows counties to receive rebates of a portion of gas tax collections above revenues allocated to them for road projects.

But as The Nerve revealed in March, that program was established under previous state law, and those gas tax revenues are not applied to the current DOT projects list.

The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, has contended that the gas-tax-hike law was written in a way to allow DOT to divert IMTF revenues to pay bond debts of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB), which over the years funneled several billion dollars for large construction projects in select counties.

DOT chief Christy Hall told The Nerve in June that the STIB could use IMTF revenues for earlier-approved interstate-widening projects. Hall told DOT commissioners in April that pending lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the gas-tax-hike law and a related 2016 statute have forced the agency to seek other funding sources for interstate projects.

As of the end of September, DOT had identified only several bridge projects to be funded through the IMTF. The DOT Commission in February approved adding $15 million annually to a separate, 10-year $1.5 billion bridge-replacement program – but not until 2024 after a tax credit created under the gas-tax-hike law expires, freeing that money for bridges.

DOT expects to have $114 million annually after the credit expires, $80 million of which would be used toward a new rural interstate-widening program approved last month by the DOT Commission. The Nerve last month revealed, however, citing projections from the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, that over the next five years, DOT will have to transfer a total estimated $300.1 million to cover expected shortfalls in a state account that will be used to fund the credits until they expire.

Following is a breakdown of the total amounts spent on “external” projects in counties as of Sept. 30, based on DOT records. In several cases, DOT combined counties while listing other projects separately in those counties.

  • Abbeville: $78,315
  • Aiken: $195,908
  • Anderson: $1,105,643
  • Anderson, Oconee: $55,003
  • Berkeley: $1,936,293
  • Charleston: $960,960
  • Cherokee: $56,410
  • Chesterfield: $1,578,967
  • Chesterfield, Lancaster: $60,577
  • Colleton: $79,653
  • Darlington: $1,031,294
  • Dillon: $1,094,448
  • Dorchester: $1,130,766
  • Edgefield: $176,085
  • Georgetown: $16,634
  • Greenville: $3,204,099
  • Greenwood: $332,133
  • Horry: $40,048
  • Jasper: $1,588,082
  • Kershaw: $142,474
  • Kershaw, Sumter: $33,363
  • Lancaster: $52,295
  • Laurens: $42,363
  • Lee: $531,634
  • Lexington: $186,657
  • Marion: $1,111,492
  • Marlboro: $615,741
  • McCormick: $29,735
  • Newberry: $428,205
  • Oconee: $1,570,627
  • Orangeburg: $1,586,044
  • Pickens: $210,685
  • Richland: $620,398
  • Saluda: $1,569,056
  • Sumter: $1,637,437
  • York: $536,696

DOT listed no money spent for “external” projects in these 13 counties as of Sept. 30: Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Beaufort, Calhoun, Chester, Clarendon, Fairfield, Florence, Hampton, Spartanburg, Union and Williamsburg.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. 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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