Nancy Cave doesn’t think the state Transportation Department needs to widen a two-lane stretch of Pamplico Highway to four lanes, a widening project on the agency’s 2015-2016 agenda.
When Cave saw the SCDOT application to work on the highway, she was surprised. “I’ve never noticed that it’s a real, real busy road,” she says.
The subject of a photo circulating in June among opponents to a gas tax increase, Cave often travels on Pamplico Highway— state Highway 51—in her role as North Coast Director of the Coastal Conservation League. While potholes riddled other state roads in rural counties, a coworker photographed Cave in May lying on the highway with no cars in sight.
Roads funding issues are a priority for the league because funding determines where the state builds roads, which impacts habitats, says executive director, Dana Beach.
Transportation funding grows, along with funding needs
Lawmakers adjourned for the year earlier in June without a roads plan after Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, waged a three-week-long filibuster and blocked a bill to raise the gas tax and other user fees. The hike was expected to draw an estimated $700 million annually.
Davis reviewed the numbers repeatedly while he held the floor—transportation funding grew by 54 percent to more than $1.6 billion since he took office in 2009. But the state highway system is facing a $42.8 billion shortfall over the next 29 years.
Beach thinks roads improvements could be better planned. The approximately $150 million slated for widening Pamplico Highway could have been better targeted for resurfacing 300 miles of pitted state roads, he says. “We’ve made a choice,” he says. “Hugh Leatherman has made it for us.”
The highway runs through part of President Pro Tempore, Sen. Hugh Leatherman’s district. The Florence Republican also chairs the Senate Finance Committee. He did not respond before publication to an email and phone message left Tuesday morning at his Senate office.
Beach says a funding solution ultimately failed because no one challenged the leadership, excepting Davis. “What it came down to is a lack of courage.”
Reforming infrastructure management
But the state’s overall structure for managing infrastructure is another speed bump in the process. The governor, House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore each appoint two members to the seven-member state Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board, which also includes the chairman of the SCDOT Commission.
The funds slated for the widening project came from a Florence County penny sales tax increase, which targeted five other projects in the area. But the state board reportedly injected $340 million into the projects through matching funds.
The only reason for the bank’s existence is to allow the state’s most powerful leaders—currently Leatherman and House Speaker Jay Lucas—to direct transportation funding, says Beach. “You’ve got an agency that is unaccountable to anybody but two people.”
Instead, Beach says the state should nix the board and allow the DOT to handle all the functions a state transportation agency should, including bonds.
The SCDOT also needs reform, say critics. Davis insisted on reform during his filibuster. Board members should be appointed by the governor, he said.
Beach agrees. He envisions a model under which qualified appointees are approved by the consent of the legislature. That commission would hire the director.
What South Carolina roads need
Answering those who say everybody knows we need a gas tax increase, Beach says, “we don’t know that.” Instead, he prescribes a full accounting of priority projects before we can know how much we need to repair roads. Beach says the agency’s current needs list includes wish list projects.
The agency’s projected shortfall includes more than the crumbling roads and bridges currently plaguing passengers. For instance, the projected needs list also includes plans to accommodate passengers on high-speed rail.
Transportation Department spokesman, Pete Poore says all the agency’s projects are prioritized under Act 114 criteria, which includes such factors as financial viability, public safety and potential for economic development.
The agency estimates it needs an additional $1.4 billion annually to keep roads and bridges in good shape.
SCDOT oversees 63 percent of the roads in South Carolina, compared with an average of 19 percent nationwide.
Under the current system, the agency is tasked with widening 24.2 miles of the typically sleepy road from Pamplico to Florence. Widening will begin on or before early 2016.
Cave acknowledges the possibility, as people sometimes tell her, that the road becomes congested when crowds flock to Myrtle Beach some Fridays.
But she thinks alternatives like adding a passing lane to accommodate traffic during peak times would be cheaper.
Lawmakers reconvened on Tuesday for a special one-week session to take up the budget and short-term roads funding proposals.