No bad bridges fixed under gas-tax-hike law, slow progress with other funds

June 12, 2019

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By RICK BRUNDRETT

The state transportation department hasn’t replaced one bad bridge with gas-tax-hike revenues collected for nearly two years – despite promises by lawmakers that the money would be used to fix South Carolina’s crumbling roads and bridges.

And the Department of Transportation has completed relatively few bridge projects in recent years with other revenues, The Nerve found in a review of agency records.

Of 422 bridge projects listed under DOT’s “10-Year Plan,” only 36, or less than 9%, have been completed. Another 257 projects – nearly 61% of the total – have “TBD” (to be determined) start dates. At least eight unfinished bridge projects were started in 2014, 2015 or 2016 – long before the gas-tax-hike law took effect on July 1, 2017, records show.

No listed bridge projects under the 10-year plan have been completed in more than half of the state’s 46 counties, The Nerve’s review found.

On its website, DOT lists slightly over $1 billion in road and bridge work to be done statewide under the gas-tax-hike law, which raised the gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years and increased other vehicle taxes and fees. Another 2-cent increase will take effect on July 1.

Yet only $10.7 million of the $1 billion is designated for bridge projects – 13 additional projects on top on bridge projects selected by DOT before the law took effect. Through April, DOT had completed none of the additional listed projects in Aiken, Anderson, Charleston, Colleton, Greenwood, Jasper, Lancaster and Sumter counties, records show.

Nearly a quarter of the $1 billion is earmarked for interstate widenings.

DOT has said 465 out of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges statewide have to be replaced, while 80 percent of the state’s 42,000 miles of roads needs resurfacing or rebuilding. The Nerve last month reported that through April, less than 5% of the $1 billion in identified road and bridge work had been completed with gas-tax-hike revenues, raising questions about whether DOT will hit its 10-year targets.

Agency chief Christy Hall did not respond to written questions this week from The Nerve, including, among other things, why relatively little has been spent so far on bridges under the gas-tax-hike law.

Gas tax credits and bad bridges

Last year, The Nerve revealed that DOT plans to add $15 million annually to a separate, 10-year, $1.51 billion bridge-replacement program, though not until 2024 after an income tax credit created under the gas-tax-hike law expires. The agency estimates that a total of $114 million will be available annually after the credit expires – $80 million of which will go toward a new rural interstate-widening program.

The tax credit, which runs through 2022, is intended to ease S.C. residents’ financial pain at the pump with the gas tax increase.

Under the gas-tax-hike law, the maximum credit allowed per taxpayer is equal to whichever is lesser: the total increase in gas taxes paid by the taxpayer for each allowed vehicle – two qualifying vehicles are allowed – in the last tax year; or “preventative maintenance” costs, such as new tires and oil changes, in the same year.

The credits are offset with a $250-per-vehicle registration fee created under the law for out-of-state vehicles, and revenues from the fee are deposited in a special state account called the “Safety Maintenance Account” (SMA). Through April, the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles had collected $33.1 million in fees on a total of 132,561 vehicles, according to agency records.

Last September, the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office estimated, as required by the gas-tax-hike law, that taxpayers would claim a total of $63 million in tax credits – capped at $40 million in the first year of the credit – for 2018. Under a state budget proviso, DOT was required in January to transfer $12.7 million to the S.C. Department of Revenue to offset predicted credits with this year’s tax filings.

But as of Tuesday, only $1.94 million in credits had been claimed from 80,123 filed tax returns, according to DOR spokeswoman Bonnie Swingle – far below the expected $40 million with the cap. The gas-tax-hike law allows DOR to require that taxpayers keep records to verify the claimed credits.

As of May 3, the average credit per return was $23.65, according to an agency release.

Asked why relatively few S.C. taxpayers have claimed the credit, Swingle in an email response Tuesday referred The Nerve to the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office. RFA director Frank Rainwater in an email response Tuesday said that “not all eligible taxpayers claimed the credit,” though he didn’t elaborate.

Under state law, any unused SMA funds in a given year must be returned to DOT. Agency chief Hall didn’t respond to a question this week from The Nerve about how DOT plans to use the balance, which currently stands, based on state comptroller general records, at about $42.7 million.

For this fiscal year, which ends June 30, DOT projects its total agency revenues at more than $1.95 billion, with about $816 million from the federal government and the bulk of the estimated approximately $808.5 million in state revenues from gas taxes and vehicle sales taxes, agency records show. DOT’s total budget for fiscal 2020 is nearly $2.6 billion.

Under the gas-tax-hike law, the base gas tax will increase over six years by 75% to 28 cents per gallon. The vehicle sales tax cap was increased from $300 to $500. As of April 30, the cash balance in a special fund created under the law, known as the “Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund,” was $479.1 million, DOT records show – which represented nearly 73 of total collected revenues.

Editor’s Note: The South Carolina Policy Council 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.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.