Monday, December 28, 2015 Blog

Rudolph the blue-eyed reindeer, warm Christmas, hot turtles, eroding beaches, transportation confusion.

by Andy Hollis
During this tranquil period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, it’s worth reflecting on those things we have learned this year, along with those we are still confused about.
On the side of understanding, the Huffington Post reports that we now know why reindeer have blue eyes, (because the compression of tissues in the back of the eye increases low-light sensitivity), but also why a red nose is not entirely a good thing, (because of additional heat loss through blood vessels near the surface of the nose).
But anyone on the East Coast would realize that there was little risk of Rudolph losing too much heat this year.  As the Washington Post reports, this Christmas Eve was the warmest on record — in some places 30 to 40 degrees above normal.  So, with a warmer planet, a red nose may turn out to be an evolutionary advantage.  (One of the few nice things one can say about climate change.)
There are no such warm weather advantages for the loggerhead sea turtle.   Above a certain sand temperature, turtle hatchlings become exclusively female, putting the species at risk.  Bo Petersen, with the Post and Courier, does not speculate on whether the record 2015 turtle nesting season was a result of past years of warmer sands producing more females (with enough males to consort with for the time being).  There is no question, however, that much of the turtle nesting success comes from decades of hard work by the small but persistent contingent of turtle volunteers who monitor nesting and hatching activity and protect nests threatened by erosion or egg-loving predators.  
Bo also reports that the erosion on the state’s public beaches, especially Hunting Island in Beaufort County, and Botany Bay and Bull’s Island in Charleston County, has reached the point that some sections of these beaches disappear at high tide.  This is not only a problem for sea turtles.  As College of Charleston geologist Leslie Sautter says, “What’s happening at Botany Bay is an extreme version of what happens along the rest of the coast.
So much for what we know…  What we don’t know falls, as usual, into the category of “transportation.”  
Tim Smith, with the Greenville News, reports that Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler is opposed to using state or federal funds to build I-73 to Myrtle Beach (a $1.4 billion project the Conservation League has been the sole opponent of for the past 20 years) with so many maintenance and repair needs statewide.  So far so good.  But Senator Peeler goes on to say that he opposes “paying ransom money or hush money to environmentalists.”  
Senator Peeler has obviously not been paying enough attention.  As I noted in the article, the Conservation League produced a study some years ago concluding that improving traffic flow on SC 501 would accomplish the goal of moving people to and from Myrtle Beach for 1/10th the cost of I-73 and with a fraction of the damage.  That was, and still is, our position on the highway.  
Even the Post and Courier’s sage editorial staff miss an important point.  This editorial supporting the use of highway funds on maintenance and repair instead of new roads argues for a gas tax increase, noting that the funding proposal for I-73 is a result of inadequate revenues.  
We don’t think so.  Had the state raised the gas tax 10 years ago, without reforming the system of spending money on projects favored by powerful politicians, I-73 would probably be at least half constructed, and the state’s roads would still be in pitiful shape.  
The problem is not a lack of revenue.  It’s a problem of priorities and fiscal discipline.  We don’t even know how much money is needed to bring the highway system up to an adequate standard, because the DOT’s bloated “backlog” figure of $40 billion includes precisely those boondoggles like I-73, I-526 and S.C. 51, the Pamplico Highway.  
So, this session, when the question of raising gas taxes is debated, we should replace the comfortable equation of “higher gas taxes = better roads,” with the more historically accurate version: “higher gas taxes = more political manipulation + lousy roads.”
Have a happy and safe new year!


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