SCDOT still sitting on huge gas-tax-hike surpluses; few major projects completed

November 20, 2019

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By RICK BRUNDRETT

For the fiscal year that starts next July 1, the state Department of Transportation wants renewed authority to spend surplus money – at least that’s what the agency requested as part of its proposed 2020-21 budget.

As of June 30 of this year, the department had $1 billion in “other” fund reserves, as The Nerve revealed last month. But DOT continues to sit on hundreds of millions in revenues collected under the state’s gas-tax-hike law that took effect July 1, 2017, newly released agency records show.

Through Sept. 30, $875 million had been collected under the law, which raised the state gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years and increased other vehicle taxes and fees. That represented nearly 80% of the approximately $1.1 billion in identified road and bridge “commitments” as part of DOT’s 10-year plan.

But more than half of the total collections – $454.1 million – in a special fund called the “Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund” had not been spent as of that date, according to online DOT records.

The Nerve’s review of those records found that of $349.6 million in vendor payments over the 27-month period, broken down by county, more than a third – $126 million – was spent mainly for “preservation” and “safety improvement” projects.

“Preservation” projects include such things as “chip sealing” and “crack sealing”; widening shoulders and adding guard rails are examples of “safety improvement” projects, according to DOT’s website.

No vendor payments had been made for identified road reconstruction projects in 16 counties as of Sept. 30, DOT records show. In another 11 counties, less than 10% of all vendor payments were for reconstruction projects.

Through Sept. 30, of the $751.6 million in identified “pavements” projects, $167 million, or 22.2%, had been completed, The Nerve’s review found. In 28 counties, including the state’s largest counties, less than 25% of the total value of listed “pavements” projects had been completed over the 27-month period.

In passing the gas-tax-hike law, legislators promised that the money would be used to fix the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges. DOT has said 80% of the state’s approximately 42,000 miles of roads needs repaving or rebuilding, and identified 465 out of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges to be replaced.

The Nerve in August reported DOT was planning to complete about 2,300 miles of road repairs by the end of 2021, though that number represents less than 7% of the approximately 33,600 miles of state roads that the agency says have to be resurfaced or rebuilt.

Despite lawmakers’ promises to repair bad roads and bridges, DOT has designated $246 million in gas-tax-hike revenues, or nearly a quarter of the total approximately $1.1 billion in project “commitments,” for interstate widenings – which the agency began to more clearly acknowledge after The Nerve in January revealed those plans.

Last month, a state Senate panel, called the “Special Interstate Subcommittee,” held its first public meeting to discuss accelerating interstate expansion. The subcommittee was created by powerful state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who is a member of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) board, which over the years funneled several billion dollars to large construction projects in select counties.

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 revenues to the STIB to pay off bond debts.

Besides working to widen existing interstates, DOT also has received a total of at least $81 million in state funding since 2004 for two proposed interstates – I-73 and I-74 – though not a drop of concrete has been poured for either highway in South Carolina, as The Nerve revealed in September and last month.

Lawmakers routinely approve an annual state budget proviso – including for this fiscal year – funneling $500,000 for the I-73 project. The Nerve reported last month that a lobbying firm hired by Gov. Henry McMaster at $15,000 a month has been spending part of its time working to help get federal funding for I-73 in South Carolina.

Following is a list of the 28 counties with less than 25% of the total value of identified “pavements” projects completed as of Sept. 30 with gas-tax-hike revenues, and the total dollar amount of completed work in each county, according to DOT records:

  • Barnwell: $1.7 million (24.3% of the total value of identified “pavements” projects)
  • Beaufort: $2.7 million (23.3%)
  • Greenville: $7.3 million (22.2%)
  • Laurens: $2.6 million (21.8%)
  • Cherokee: $2.2 million (21.6%)
  • Greenwood: $3.5 million (21.2%)
  • Kershaw: $2.8 million (20.6%)
  • Edgefield: $2.3 million (20.4%)
  • Pickens: $4.7 million (20.3%)
  • Fairfield: $2.1 million (19.7%)
  • Anderson: $6.4 million (19.5%)
  • Lee: $1.4 million (19.1%)
  • Florence: $3.9 million (18.8%)
  • Abbeville: $1.6 million (18.5%)
  • Charleston: $4.5 million (18.5%)
  • Richland: $5.3 million (17.9%)
  • Spartanburg: $4.9 million (16.7%)
  • Allendale: $880,954 (13.2%)
  • Calhoun: $553,582 (11%)
  • Newberry: $1.2 million (10.8%)
  • Orangeburg: $2.1 million (7.6%)
  • Williamsburg: $1.2 million (7.3%)
  • Hampton: $586,040 (6.8%)
  • Georgetown: $1.6 million (6.3%)
  • Horry: $3.4 million (6.2%)
  • Lexington: $1.3 million (5.2%)
  • Chesterfield: $376,918 (1.6%)
  • Lancaster: $69,988 (.3%)

Editor’s Note: The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, 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.