Sunday, January 3, 2016 Blog

Same as it ever was, a transportation vision takes flight, with a reality check.

by Dana Beach

As we plunge into 2016 with resolutions about exercising more, eating less (and locally, GrowFood Carolina hopes), and spending wisely, it’s worth considering David Byrne’s percipient lyric, “Same as it ever was.” In that vein, the Legislature will convene next Tuesday. The biggest financial issue they will debate in 2016 is whether to raise the gas tax, just as they did last year, and the year before that.

Cindi Scoppe, with The State, writes that the DOT Commission is itself the single most potent argument against higher gas taxes. (I nominate the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank as the second most potent argument.) At last month’s commission meeting, the incoming DOT chair, Mike Wooten, a voluble engineering consultant from Myrtle Beach, proclaimed that I-73 had been resurrected, the Department having found the perfect plan to mitigate the destruction of 272 acres of wetlands, (some of which reside in a state heritage preserve.)

Cindi notes that the funding now available for this $2.4 billion highway, from the North Carolina border to Conway, covers “about 2 percent of the total cost.” Wooten did not reveal where the rest of the money will come from. In fact, two months ago, The State reported on e-mails he had written urging keeping a toll study under wraps, apparently because the report concluded that tolls would not come close to paying for the road.

In spite of the indisputable disfunction of the agency, starting at the very top with the Commission, the Legislature has refused to take even modest steps toward reform. The reason is blindingly simple: The system has been carefully structured to place spending decisions in the hands of the legislative leadership, and they have no intention of relinquishing that power without a struggle.

I’m sure this sounds like inside baseball to those of you who don’t make a habit of following South Carolina transportation matters closely, but Cindi’s closing paragraph is the perfect summary of the question at hand:

We’re still left with this inescapable problem: Absent the governmental reforms that Senate (and House) leaders are determined to defeat, the new tax money would go to the gang that can’t budget straight (the DOT) — the gang that’s so myopic that it would pull a stunt like this (the resurrection of I-73) in the middle of the gas tax debate.

Which brings me back to David Byrne, who also said, “You may ask yourself, “Where is that highway going to?”’ Mike Wooten may think it’s going to Conway, but my former Gibbes Street neighbor, Ben Cotton, has different ideas. Ben runs a company called “ACE Basin Express,” a luxury bus service between Charleston and Savannah. In his spare time, he designs transit systems, (something, to paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “every million person metro area needs.”) As Diane Knich with the Post and Courier writes, Ben’s map of a future rapid transit system for the Charleston metro region has taken the social media world by storm, proving that a lot of people long for the opportunity to replace ever-lengthening automobile commutes with shorter, more pleasant trips on some form of transit that is rapid, (as opposed to CARTA, which both glacially slow, and also unpredictable).

The Post and Courier sums this all up, calling for a new transportation vision that gets people out of cars, and noting that there is no silver bullet for the congestion that plagues parts of the region.

So, refreshed and reinvigorated from the holidays, armed with bold visions of a new transportation future, and grounded in the knowledge that there are no easy solutions, onward into 2016!

Dana


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