We’re working hard on transportation reform at the State House this week. Our South Coast Director, Kate Schaefer, wrote a piece in response to the Post and Courier’s editorial on roads. The Post and Courier chose the headline “Don’t raise gas tax, reform road funding.” To be clear: Our position is “Don’t raise gas tax, unless you reform road funding.” Kate does a great job of explaining why:
As anticipated, the road debate resumed its position at center stage in the Statehouse just days after legislators returned. As The Post and Courier noted in an editorial last week, “Sooner or later, legislators have to advance a repair and maintenance program — at the least.”
While we agree that something must be done to improve the state’s roads and bridges, we respectfully disagree with the notion that the primary solution is a new gas tax. To understand if an increase in our current gas tax is needed, we must examine where some gas tax revenue along with revenue from truck registrations, S.C. Department of Transportation appropriations and electric taxes are currently used to fund the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB), an agency that uses these funds for massive expenditures for new construction projects while our existing road network falls into greater disrepair.
While a gas tax sounds like a convenient fix, the problem we face is not simply funding. It is a spending problem, and it is a direct result of the discretion left to the STIB.
However, these laws do not apply to the STIB, leaving it the flexibility to bond billions of dollars to fund politically motivated transportation projects across the state. The lack of accountability and oversight has allowed them to spend $100 million to widen Highway 51 in Florence, and $420 million to extend I-526, while 23 percent of the state’s bridges remain in disrepair. Meanwhile, agreed upon needs such as increased capacity along I-26 remain unfunded.
Rather than helping DOT fund its statewide transportation goals, the STIB controls and directs its funding to new construction on a “first come, first served” basis. It not only abuses limited DOT gas tax resources but perpetuates a system where regions with the best lobbying tactics — and not the highest transportation needs — win.
While the concept of an infrastructure bank is not unique, our state’s iteration certainly is. Thirty-one other states have transportation infrastructure banks, but only ours operates outside the state department of transportation. Not only is our STIB not accountable to the DOT, it is also most active in direct grants rather than loans.
Furthermore, the board structure bakes in political influence, with two legislators appointing four members. The governor appoints two, and the DOT commission chairman, serving at the will of the Legislature, is the seventh member. Six counties have received the majority of the funding (99 percent), Charleston included, and funding matches board representation. For the 40 other counties, and the underfunded DOT, the board has underdelivered and served only as a harmful diversion of badly needed funds.
Before we ask S.C. citizens to increase their gas tax, let’s fix the system. Projects should be prioritized, selected and funded by the DOT. The current revenue streams and bonding functions provided to the STIB should move under the DOT so that wasteful spending is addressed, before more revenue is at risk.
We cannot continue to pour water into a leaky bucket and expect things to change. Reforms that lead to more oversight and accountability by the DOT are essential before we raise the gas tax and before the 2016 legislative session comes to a close.
Kate Schaefer is the South Coast office director for the Coastal Conservation League.