What SCDOT isn’t telling you about gas-tax-hike projects

June 27, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

At last week’s S.C. Department of Transportation Commission meeting, agency head Christy Hall bragged about the “record level of road work underway currently in South Carolina.”

“We have delivered results for our taxpayers and for our citizens of this state,” Hall proudly told commissioners Thursday.

But as of the end of the May, less than 8 percent of the quarter-billion-plus dollars collected from the gas tax hike and other related tax and fee increases that went into effect last July 1 had been spent, DOT records show.

And if you want to know how exactly the six-year, 12-cent gas tax increase and other related hikes will be used –  which lawmakers promised would go toward fixing the state’s crumbling roads and bridges  – you won’t find those answers on DOT’s $381 million projects list.

The Nerve’s review of the online list – which DOT says is part of its effort to be transparent about the gas tax hike – from January through May found that:

  • Projects are added monthly without explanation. Overall project amounts increased by at least $4 million over the period in each of 15 counties, including Florence County – home of arguably the state’s most powerful lawmaker, Sen. Hugh Leatherman – which had the biggest jump (nearly 63 miles) in total project road miles.
  • Projects aren’t prioritized or described other than listing the location and “committed” dollar amounts, so taxpayers can’t know which ones are the most important or details on the work to be done. And no explanation is given about why some shorter road projects are projected to cost far more than longer projects.
  • The projects are lumped mainly into two broad categories – “Pavements” and “Safety” or “Rural Road Safety” – which aren’t defined on the list. DOT’s overall “Safety Program” includes pedestrian and bicycle safety projects – things that lawmakers didn’t promise in pushing for the 75-percent gas tax hike.
  • As of May 31, about a third of the approximately 1,450 miles of identified road projects, which include state and U.S. highways, had zero listed “committed” dollars – without any explanation.

On the latest project list publicly released last week, DOT for the first time included $34.3 million for an 11.1-mile, “Interstate Upgrade” on I-20 in Lexington County, which as of May 31 had the most total project miles (82) and highest overall project amount ($61.2 million) among all 46 counties.

In a Nerve story earlier this month, Hall acknowledged that funds generated under the gas-tax-hike law could be used by the legislatively controlled State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) – whose governing board includes Leatherman – to help finance earlier-approved interstate widening projects, including I-20 in Lexington County.

Critics, including the South Carolina Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization, contend the law as written allows millions of dollars to be diverted to the STIB, which over the years has funneled several billion dollars collectively to a small number of counties, to finance revenue bonds for big-ticket projects – in violation of the state constitution.

The law, known as Act 40, created the “Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund” (IMTF), which “must be used exclusively for the repairs, maintenance, and improvements to the existing transportation system.” The online DOT projects list reviewed by The Nerve is labeled as the “IMTF Project List.”

At the April 19 DOT Commission meeting, Hall contended that two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the gas-tax-hike law and a related 2016 law has “created a level of uncertainty,” forcing DOT to seek an alternative funding method for widening interstates. Meanwhile, though, money is being spent out of the IMTF, Kace Smith, DOT’s chief financial officer, told commissioners last week.

“I think March was the first month we have started paying out of the (IMTF),” Smith said, though she didn’t provide details of the expenditures.

During Thursday’s meeting, Robert “Robby” Robbins, the commission’s vice-chairman who represents all or parts of Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton and Dorchester counties, was critical of the department’s road paving program.

“I want a system-wide analysis of which roads are the worst, and I want money to go there first … and I don’t think we are doing that right now,” said Robbins, adding, “I’ve got serious needs in my district that are not being attended to.”

In response, Hall said the agency has taken a “blended approach” to road paving to “try to address some of the worst-of-the-worst (roads),” while at the same time spending money on roads that are in “fair” condition, contending that ignoring those roads now will cost more in the long run to repair.

DOT officials have said that 80 percent of the state’s 42,000 miles of roads needs to be resurfaced or rebuilt.

Hall stressed during the meeting that her agency uses “an analytical – not a political – process for identifying, selecting and picking projects … based on objective, quantifiable criteria.” DOT, however, has not responded to written questions submitted by The Nerve on June 15 asking for, among other things:

  • The specific criteria used to determine what “pavements” and “safety” projects are included on the agency’s online IMTF project list, and who determines what projects are selected;
  • Details on the types of work to be done for the “pavements” and “safety” projects;
  • Why the projects list is updated monthly instead of being finalized at some point; and
  • Why there are hundreds of miles of identified projects with zero listed “committed” amounts.

DOT calling shots

As of May 31, the 10 counties with the biggest total “committed” amounts (in millions) were as follows: Lexington ($61.2), Greenville ($19.5), Lancaster ($13), Chesterfield ($12.6), Richland ($12.5), Anderson ($11.6), Florence ($11.5), Horry ($14.97), Orangeburg ($11.42), and Spartanburg ($11.1). The $381 million in total projects statewide jumped by 124 percent compared to the IMTF list as of Jan. 31, The Nerve’s review found.

The Nerve last week contacted officials in seven counties that had among the largest increases (at least $5 million) in overall “committed” amounts from January through May. Of the three counties that responded – Edgefield, Horry and Lancaster – each said DOT selected the projects for their respective counties.

Asked about a 5.29-mile stretch of S.C. 903 in Lancaster County – the longest identified stretch in that county under the “Pavements” section of the IMTF list – Jeff Catoe, the county’s public works director, couldn’t say whether it was in poor condition. The total overall “committed” project amount in the county skyrocketed from less than $89,000 as of Jan. 31 to about $13.1 million as of May 31 – with no explanation.

“Most of the projects (on the IMTF) list … I don’t have much knowledge of because those are state roads,” he said.

But Catoe knows the importance of the S.C. 903 stretch to the state’s tourism industry.

“That is probably the No. 1 way to Myrtle Beach for half of this part of the region,” he said. “It sounds like that long of a stretch would be a resurfacing or repaving project.”

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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