Road-naming legislation cuts into road repair funds

September 21, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

When in session, S.C. lawmakers routinely introduce legislation dedicating an existing road section, bridge or intersection to a living or deceased person – including ex-legislators.

Their road- and bridge-naming proposals are made through concurrent resolutions, which unlike general bills, can’t be reviewed by the governor.

Since 2017, legislators have approved 57 such resolutions, according to state Department of Transportation records provided this week to The Nerve. In this year’s regular legislative session, which ran from January into May, lawmakers approved 24 resolutions and rejected one, with at least a dozen proposals pending when lawmakers return to Columbia next year, legislative records show.

It’s been a long-standing practice in the Legislature, as The Nerve reported in 2011 and 2014.

Under state law, every time lawmakers approve road- or bridge-naming legislation, the money to produce and erect the signs comes out of a state fund designated to repair local roads.

The law also requires that legislative delegations representing the counties where the signs will be located approve reimbursing DOT for the cost of the signs, limited to $500. In an email Friday to The Nerve, DOT spokesman Pete Poore said the agency “gets $500 one time only, no matter how many signs are requested and no matter what future replacements might occur.”

Based on that, DOT would have been reimbursed a total of $28,500 for the 57 approved resolutions since 2017.

The legislative delegations appoint County Transportation Committees (CTCs) that approve local road projects with “C” funds, which come from part of the state gasoline tax.

With the gas-tax-hike law that took effect on July 1, 2017, the C-fund portion of the gas tax will increase from 2.66 cents per gallon to 3.99 cents per gallon by July 1, 2021. The law raised the overall gas-tax base of 16 cents per gallon by 12 cents over six years, and also increased other vehicle taxes and fees.

Lawmakers promised those revenues would go toward fixing the state’s crumbling roads and bridges, though The Nerve has repeatedly pointed out that DOT has completed relatively few major projects, while a state fund created with the law is fat with hundreds of millions in collected revenues.

The Nerve’s latest review found that road and bridge namesakes since 2017 included living or dead community and religious leaders; retired federal, state and local government officials; and police officers and soldiers killed in the line of duty.

Those recognized also included Lois Eargle, a former state House member and the current Horry County auditor; two deceased state lawmakers – Joe Neal and William Clyde Graham; the father of current S.C. Sen. Marlon Kimpson; and U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn’s late wife, Emily England Clyburn, who died earlier this week.

In addition, a pending House resolution asks the Charleston County Aviation Authority to rename Charleston International Airport after the late Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, who was the S.C. governor from 1959-63 and a U.S. senator from 1966-2005. Hollings died in April; the House resolution was introduced in February.

The road- and bridge-naming issue has been heightened in recent weeks with the criminal cases of former longtime DOT commissioner John Hardee of Columbia. On Thursday, the DOT Commission unanimously approved removing signs on stretches of two roads named after Hardee at Columbia Metropolitan Airport and in Horry County, and renaming the “John N. Hardee Expressway” at the airport to the “Columbia Airport Expressway.”

The commission’s resolution, read aloud by commission chairman Robert “Robby” Robbins, a former 1st Circuit solicitor, “disavows the actions of former commissioner Hardee,” noting Hardee’s federal guilty plea last month was in connection with an investigation into “payments he received from a contractor seeking to do business with SCDOT while serving as an SCDOT commissioner.”

Hardee was sentenced to 18 months’ probation after pleading guilty to a federal attempted evidence-tampering charge, but was arrested the next day by Richland County Sheriff’s deputies in a prostitution sting. He served on the DOT Commission from 1998 to 2007 and from 2014 until early last year after Gov. Henry McMaster declined to renominate him – a week after The Nerve revealed that Hardee was a paid consultant for a lobbying organization that received thousands annually from other public agencies.

The commission’s resolution on Thursday noted that commissioners named the Columbia Metropolitan Airport road after Hardee in 1999. DOT records provided to The Nerve this week show that the commission has approved at least nine road- or bridge-naming resolutions since September 2016.

That includes separate resolutions in 2018 to name road sections in Spartanburg County and Myrtle Beach after Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright and Brad Dean, the ex-CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, respectively.

Hardee is the son-in-law of state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who is the longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and arguably the state’s most powerful lawmaker. Leatherman has a state ports terminal under construction in North Charleston and a science building at Francis Marion University in Florence named after him.

Leatherman was the sponsor of a 2017 resolution naming a Florence County bridge after the late state lawmaker William Clyde Graham of Florence County, who served in the House and Senate from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Contacted this week by The Nerve, longtime state government watchdog John Crangle said naming public roads, bridges and buildings after living people is “very problematic” because “even though up to that point they may not have gotten into trouble, they can get into trouble afterward; and it creates an embarrassment, which is what happened in the Hardee case.”

“It seems to me a prudent policy would either be not to name roads and bridges and buildings after anybody, or wait say five or 10 years after their death before the structure is named,” said Crangle, the government relations director of the South Carolina Progressive Network.

In the wake of the Hardee case, state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said she plans to introduce a bill that would allow public roads, bridges and buildings to be named after fallen soldiers or police officers, though the recognition for others would have to wait until more than a year after their deaths, according to a State newspaper story.

In the 2014 legislative session, Shealy introduced a bill that would have set a five-year waiting period for recognition requests involving deceased elected or appointed officials. The bill died in the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Leatherman.

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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