Monday, May 25, 2015 Blog

Road Rage and Motivated Avoidance

by Dana Beach

I suspect many of you have been sitting by the computer this Memorial Day thinking, “I hope I will receive an update from Dana.”  Actually, I hope you are outside enjoying this magnificent weekend and don’t see this until Tuesday.

After a three week hiatus from me, I can say that things have not changed much in the transportation arena.  The Legislature is still considering passing a massive tax increase for roads, without any assurance that the funding will be spent on state priorities.  Boondoggles like I-73 from Rockingham to Conway, the I-526 extension to rural Johns Island, and the $100 million four-laning of SC 51 to Pamplico (which road is projected to operate at level of service “A” in 2030 even in its current two lane condition), should be more that adequate evidence to kill the tax increase.  

As a point of reference, these three projects alone account for more than $3 billion of the “backlog” the DOT says state taxpayers must pony up to bring our transportation system up to standard.   It is now almost unanimously accepted that the tax increase is synonymous with advancing economic development, mobility and safety.  Yet there is not a shred of evidence to support this belief, and abundant history to deny it.  (Psychologists call the inclination to deny factual analysis that leads to unpleasant or unpopular conclusions “motivated avoidance,” and South Carolina has a case of it in spades these days.)

Speaking of roads, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) has now spent almost two years unsuccessfully trying to reach agreement with Charleston County over the I-526 project.  The sticking point is who pays for the cost overruns and legal fees.  The overruns are almost certain to amount to $100 million or more.  County Council Chair Elliott Summey is holding firm on the county not shouldering those costs, but the STIB is just as firm that they won’t either.

As the Post and Courier points out, the latest proposal to build only half of the project is, to put it bluntly, crazy.  But it does confirm that the true motivation behind the extension was never to relieve traffic on Highway 17, as asserted, but to provide access to more development at Kiawah and Seabrook Islands, and to future development on Johns Island.  The second Post and Courier editorial points out that the project, now officially a “zombie,” deserves the right of a dignified death and burial.

Speaking of the walking dead, the third article, also from the Post and Courier, reports that Volvo’s decision to build a factory in Berkeley County has revived discussion of the “Outer Loop.”  For the uninitiated, this idea was inspired by Charleston’s envy of Atlanta and Charlotte.  The Outer Loop would extend the Glenn McConnell Expressway from Bee’s Ferry Road, through the middle of the Ashley River Historic Plantation District, around the top of Summerville over to I-26.  Eventually, it is envisioned to loop around Lake Moultrie, through the Cooper River Historic District and the Francis Marion National Forest, to connect with U.S. 17 below McClellanville.  Thus, it would accomplish the trifecta of historic and environmental destruction.

It is noteworthy that proponents of the project, with costs in the billions of dollars, including the Charleston Chamber of Commerce and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, are also strong advocates for the I-526 Extension, which has a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars.  There is currently no funding anywhere in sight for the Outer Loop.  

Which brings us back to the gas tax and motivated avoidance.  If you want potholes fixed and road surfaces maintained, contact your legislator and encourage him or her not to pass a gas tax increase this session without a binding, legal commitment to spend the money on maintenance and repair only, not on destroying some of the most extraordinary places in the Lowcountry.  At this point, Beaufort Senator Tom Davis is the primary champion in the Senate for accountability in transportation spending.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day!

Dana

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