COLUMBIA – One out of every four dollars that goes into the state Department of Transportation's coffers has been spent on debt or shifted to other agencies, and much of the remainder has been designated for uses other than resurfacing or rehabilitating the state's deteriorating roads, records reviewed by The Greenville News show.
At the heart of the ongoing and heated debate over whether to increase the gas tax to improve South Carolina's roads is how DOT has spent its money and why the state's roads are in such poor condition after years of budget increases for the agency.
Interviews with those on both sides of the issue reveal ample suspicion among opponents that the agency already has enough money to improve roads, while supporters argue the agency does not have the resources it needs to properly care for the nation's fourth largest state-maintained road system.
“I think the roads need repairing. Anyone who is not blind can see that,” said Darla Booher of Greer, president of the Carolina Independent Auto Dealers Association and an opponent of the Senate roads plan. She said the main issue is how to fund the repairs “or if there really is a need or the funds are already there.”
“I think the Legislature has to look at that first and make sure the money already being collected is being used properly,” she said.
Bill Meyer of Moore, who supports a tax hike, has spent years cataloging the misery of driving over ruts and potholes, broken and sunken pavement, even rebar, using photos shot when he worked as a deputy sheriff in Spartanburg County.
The resulting library of images and videos tell the story of bad roads in a state filled with crumbling pavement and substandard bridges.
Meyer said he hopes lawmakers will provide enough money this year to fix not just congested interstates but rural roads that he says have been patched multiple times but not repaired.
“My feeling is there is not enough money to do what needs to be done because the roads have gotten so bad,” he said. “And with the current funding, I don’t see it getting any better.”
At stake, many lawmakers argue, is not just fixing the state's broken pavement and bridges but reducing highway carnage from accidents that gave South Carolina the top fatality rate in the nation in 2015.
House lawmakers earlier this year approved a plan to raise the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon over five years. With some new and increased fees, the House plan would raise almost $600 million a year.
Upstate lawmakers voting against the plan included Rep. Eric Bedingfield of Belton, Rep. Mike Burns of Taylors, Rep. Jason Elliott of Greenville, Rep. Bill Chumley of Woodruff, Rep. Neal Collins of Easley, Rep. Dan Hamilton of Greenville, Rep. Jonathon Hill of Townville, Rep. Davey Hiott of Pickens, Rep. Joshua Putnam of Piedmont, and Rep. Garry Smith of Simpsonville.
The Senate Finance Committee amended the plan to increase the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon over six years, which supporters say would cost the average motorist about $60 more per year if driving 10,000 miles. That plus various fees would raise almost $800 million. Upstate senators on the panel voting against it included Sen. Tom Corbin of Travelers Rest, Sen. Danny Verdin of Laurens, and Sen. Shane Martin of Pauline.
On Wednesday, an attempt in the Senate to give the roads bill priority status fell just shy of the votes needed. Talks are likely to continue between both sides to see if a compromise can be reached.
Much of the reason citizens see decay on South Carolina's primary road system has been because lawmakers have funneled much of DOT's money to interstates and certain types of secondary routes, State Transportation Secretary Christy Hall told The News.
DOT officials say they have tried their best to maintain the state's roadways with the resources given to them.
In fact, while the state’s highway agency has tripled its spending on pavement over the past decade, it still has spent less per mile and per capita than almost any state in the nation, records show.
The lack of spending has caught up with the state, Hall says, leaving a majority of roads in such bad condition they must be rebuilt, at a cost of $8 billion. Still, other organizations that have reviewed the state's roads using federal highway data have reported a much smaller percentage of bad roads and have placed the state in the middle of the pack when ranking states on road conditions.
Follow the money
One of the chief opponents of a gas tax increase has been Sen. Tom Davis.
“Spending on South Carolina’s roads has skyrocketed during my time in the Senate,” the Beaufort Republican said in a commentary printed in Greenville News on March 15. “When I first took office in 2009, we spent $1 billion a year; now, after steady increases, road spending is $2.2 billion. Yet despite this 120 percent increase, many of our state’s roads remain in bad condition. Which begs an obvious question: Why aren’t we getting the results the people deserve given the amount of their money we are spending?”
DOT officials say there are multiple answers to Davis’ questions.
First, they note that Davis’ starting date was during the recession, when DOT revenues had bottomed out. The increase is not as big if comparing to 2006, they say.
DOT's budget, however, grew from $1.8 billion in the current fiscal year to a proposed $2.1 billion in the fiscal year starting in July. DOT officials say that is because previously approved major projects, including a port road, Volvo plant infrastructure and interstate projects, are entering the construction phase, where more money is spent.
“The DOT budget has grown in recent years,” Hall told The News. “But the bulk of those funds are designated or earmarked for certain types of projects. For example, the largest increases to the agency were designated for interstate widening projects and also for bridge replacement. Very little was for resurfacing.”
Other increases, she said, were due to so-called pass-throughs, such as money for the port access road, Volvo plant infrastructure or State Infrastructure Bank reimbursements.
“So yes, the budget has increased,” she said. “However, it has been legislatively directed for certain types of activities which are primarily not the repaving of our primary roads.”
And the primary road system, which carries almost half the state’s traffic “basically has been reduced funded for an extended period of time,” she said.
Former state Sen. John Land, a Calhoun County Democrat and former state highway commissioner who served in the Legislature from 1976 to 2012, argues that it is the Legislature, not the transportation department, that is to blame.
DOT came to the Legislature in 1987, he said, and made an “absolute” case for raising the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon.
“We gave them 5 cents and told them to take that money and build new roads,” Land said. “So we didn’t do a thing for them, and they have existed from 1987 up until now simply by using maintenance money for construction and to match the federal dollars.”
He said those opposed to raising taxes or fees often say the solution is to rid the agency of fraud or waste and then restructure it.
“That’s a hide-behind,” Land said. “If you can’t fight it head-on, you say, ‘I’m for it but let’s get all this fraud out of it or restructure it.’ That’s the same argument that’s going on. I’ve heard it so many times I can predict it, always from the Republicans, always from the conservatives.”
Road building, he argued, is a “long-term proposition,” meaning the roads that should be planned now are for 30 years in the future.
“What we have done is gone back to planning on what we’re going to do tomorrow and there is just not enough money there,” he said. “We have gone to the point now where this state will never catch up with its road system.”
Small state, big system
South Carolina has the fourth-largest state-maintained road system in the nation, with more than 41,000 miles. Primary routes are major state and U.S. roads and make up 9,517 miles. Federal-aid secondary routes are less traveled local roads. They make up 10,370 miles. The last category are the least traveled secondary roads, many of them short roads, some in front of schools or cemeteries or dead ends. These are not eligible for federal aid and comprise almost 21,000 miles.
About 7 percent of the state's traffic rides on the non-federal aid secondary routes, which lawmakers for years have wanted to return to local governments. But local officials have remained suspect of accepting anything from the state without guaranteed funds to maintain them.
In the 1990s, DOT launched an accelerated road improvement program called 27-7, aimed at building 27 years of projects in seven years, primarily with the aid of bonds. The program built or improved many roads but also left the state with a debt it is still paying today.
Over the next decade, DOT was hit with a string of problems, including fallout from the Great Recession, increased material prices and cash-flow problems.
Still, revenues increased. According to DOT’s financial statements, revenues grew from $1.1 billion in 2008-09 to $1.6 billion in 2014-15. This year, the agency is expected to collect between $1.7 and $1.8 billion.
Most of the agency's money comes from fuel taxes, either from the state’s gas and diesel taxes or federal grants derived from the federal fuel taxes.
But much of the revenue is not spent on roads.
For instance, out of $601 million forecast for this year’s gas tax revenue, the agency will net $463 million because of a series of deductions mandated by law. They include almost $75 million for county transportation committees, nearly $18 million for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, close to $1 million for the state Department of Agriculture, $3.7 million for the Department of Natural Resources watercraft fund and almost $15 million for an international fuel tax agreement, according to DOT.
Of $841 million in non-federal revenue, according to DOT, the agency was required by law this year to spend $88 million for a port access road, almost $80 million for the State Infrastructure Bank, $8 million for the Cross Island Toll Road operations and $128 million for non-federal aid for secondary roads. The Infrastructure Bank is a separate agency that finances major transportation projects in the state using bonds.
Out of that same pot, according to the agency, DOT also will spend $64 million for debt service, $270 million for routine maintenance, including employee benefits; $90 million for engineering and project management; $11 million for planning and mass transit; $27 million for general administration, including benefits; $8 million for facility repairs; and $133 million for federal match funds. The federal government reimburses the state 80 percent or more for any eligible project cost.
What is left for pavement this year is $212 million on federal aid-eligible road widening, principally interstate projects, and new construction, and $268 million on federal aid-eligible pavement rehabilitation and resurfacing projects. Another $179 million will be spent on bridges eligible for federal aid.
Most of the state's pavement projects are expensive. According to a report by the Legislative Audit Council, the Legislature's watchdog, the average resurfacing project cost per mile of lane in South Carolina projects it surveyed was about $161,000. For new construction that cost was $1.4 million.
Watchdog: Fraud, abuse not the problem
In 2016, the LAC looked at DOT revenues and spending for the years 2006 through 2015. Its auditors found no significant waste or fraud. Instead, they reported the agency was not able to keep up with inflation.
“Total SCDOT revenues have increased approximately $160 million over the last 10 years, with some years showing a significant decrease due to swings in revenue sources caused primarily by the recession and underlying construction activity,” the LAC reported. “In our review, we found that revenue sources are not increasing enough to cover rising costs due to inflation.”
The LAC reported that DOT revenue had grown by 12 percent over 10 years. But over the same time period, it found, the Consumer Price Index rose 18 percent and an index measuring prices for capital projects was up 34 percent.
“This indicates that revenue sources are not growing at a pace to cover increasing costs due to inflation,” the LAC concluded.
Still, the agency has almost tripled its spending on resurfacing and rehabilitation, the LAC found.
The amount spent by the agency on pavement projects, not including new construction or road widening, according to the LAC, grew between 2008 and 2015 from $129 million to $326 million. According to DOT, the agency completed 684 miles of rehabilitation or reconstruction projects in 2009-10 and 973 miles of the same type of projects in 2015-16.
The agency spent about $321 million in 2016, according to DOT, on road rehabilitation or reconstruction projects on 638 miles of interstates (counting one direction only) and $76.6 million for rehabilitation and reconstruction projects on 335 miles of state roads, counting both directions.
The LAC also noted that one out of every four dollars going to DOT was spent on debt service or sent to other agencies, such as the Infrastructure Bank, county transportation committees, metropolitan planning committees and regional councils of government. In fact, the LAC said DOT spent $182 million on metro planning committees and regional councils in 2015, although only $36 million was required by federal law to be spent. That money went for capacity projects "and may not address statewide needs," LAC said.
DOT officials said spending above the required amounts for metro and regional agencies is the result of a policy decision made by the DOT commission in the 1990s. Those are planning organizations, such as the Greenville-Pickens Area Transportation Study (GPATS), responsible for recommending local and regional transportation projects in urban and rural areas.
Hall wrote in her response to the LAC report that South Carolina has developed a “bookend” approach to funding roads, with one bookend the funding of interstates by DOT and the Infrastructure Bank and the other bookend the funding of low-volume, local or neighborhood streets by the county transportation committees and the non-federal aid program.
“This bookend approach, combined with 25 percent of the agency’s revenues being diverted and the overall decline in purchasing power, has limited SCDOT’s ability to address its core priorities,” she wrote. “As a result, the primary system which carries half of our traffic and serves a vital role in the movement of people and freight in both our urban and rural communities has significantly eroded in condition.”
The LAC found problems with the way the agency ranked projects in priority. SCDOT did not have a single prioritization list encompassing all types of projects, had advanced lower-ranked projects over higher-ranked projects without written justification, could not provide the raw data used to calculate scores for the criteria used to rank projects, and could not provide the methodology to determine criteria scores, the LAC reported.
DOT, in its LAC response, took issue with the criticism over its prioritization process, saying it was impractical to put all projects on a single list. But it said it was reviewing its processes and was willing to make improvements.
Land said the Legislature has waited too long to fix the state's infrastructure problem.
"Our roads are in a mess," he said. "It's just like not taking care of your health. You can't wait until you're 75 and all of a sudden say, 'I'm going to start doing the things I should have done when I was 35. It's too late."
A pothole and broken up asphalt along Amber Drive, outside Anderson city limits. On a 100-point condition scale, the road scores a 19, making it one of the most in need of repair.
(Photo: Ken Ruinard/Independent Mail)
How SC roads compare with those in other states
South Carolina spends less in maintaining its roads than most states but its road system is better than many, according to various rankings that have peered at the state's infrastructure.
But the reviews contain qualifications that make exact comparisons difficult.
The Reason Foundation conducts a regular review of state transportation agencies’ spending and ranks them based on their efficiency, a weighted measurement of how much is spent to maintain the mileage in each system.
For 2013, the latest year of data analyzed by Reason, South Carolina spent the least per state-maintained mile, at $35,286. North Carolina ranked 3rd while Georgia ranked 24th.
As the study notes, state-maintained systems vary greatly and not just because of the state’s size. Some states are responsible only for some major highways, whereas in others, such as South Carolina, they must maintain interstates, primary routes and all secondary routes.
In another national comparison, by the Associated Press using federal highway agency data, South Carolina ranked 49th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in per capita highway spending for 2013. North Carolina ranked 35th and Georgia ranked 51st.
To gauge DOT’s efficiency in pavement projects, the South Carolina Legislative Audit Council compared its contracts with contracts in other Southeastern states.
The LAC found that South Carolina’s average cost per lane mile for resurfacing was $161,236 compared to a national average of $160,979. For new construction, South Carolina’s average cost per lane mile was $1.4 million, compared to $1.3 million for other states.
Many agree that South Carolina's roads are in need of repair but organizations that have studied the state's road conditions have offered different numbers and rankings on road quality.
While DOT says 54 percent of the state's roads are in poor shape and need rebuilding, other groups score the percentage of bad roads much lower and place the state in the middle of the pack or better nationally.
The latest to evaluate the state's roads is TRIP, a national nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C., that analyzed federal highway data and concluded that 29 percent of South Carolina's major locally and state-maintained urban roads and highways are in poor condition, while 35 percent are in mediocre condition. Another 19 percent are in fair condition and 17 percent are in good condition, TRIP said.
Rocky Moretti, director of research and policy for TRIP, told The News that states like South Carolina conduct more comprehensive analysis of roads so their numbers will differ.
"It's not a question of right or wrong," he said. "They are looking at different things."
He said the data TRIP uses is based on smoothness of the highway, measured by vibration recordings in vans driving over the roads. The federal highway data and data used by TRIP, he said, is a sampling of the state's roads.
"We use it because it's all 50 states," he said. "But each state individually has more sophisticated pavement management programs that look at the ride quality, what is underneath the surface, how strong is the substructure."
Since 2008, according to DOT’s records, the percentage of road miles in good condition has stayed relatively the same, at or just below 20 percent. But that percentage varies by type of route. Interstates, for instance, have the highest percentage of good miles, at 66 percent in 2014, according to the LAC, while the least traveled secondary routes have the least, at 12 percent.
Over the past decade, the percentage of road miles in poor condition has grown, DOT’s figures show, from 31 percent in 2008 to 54 percent currently.
DOT grades its roads using physical assessments conducted by teams traveling in vans. The measurements examine rutting, roughness and pavement distress and are boiled down into a pavement quality index. From that, DOT can rate the health and remaining life of its pavement. The least would be zero and the most ranges from 16 to 20 years. About half the state's mileage has no years remaining in service, according to DOT.
Interstates are inspected each year, while primary routes and some secondary routes are studied once each three years. The least traveled secondary roads are examined once each six years.
The Federal Highway Administration takes a snapshot of states' roads by measuring the percentage of miles in urban and rural interstates and major rural primary routes that are rated rough. In South Carolina, interstates make up about 851 miles of the system and are in better shape than all other roads in the state. So defining the state's road conditions based on this snapshot will offer a different view than the state's measurements.
The Reason Foundation ranks states in each of its reports using the federal data. For the most recent report, South Carolina ranked 9th lowest in the percentage of rural interstates in rough condition, 11th lowest in urban interstates and 7th lowest in rural major routes, meaning most states had higher percentages of their roads rated as rough.
The American Society of Civil Engineers uses the roughness index to give a single percentage for the state's roads.
According to its latest report, 16 percent of South Carolina’s roads are in poor condition. That ranks the state 29th in the percentage of poor roads, tied with Massachusetts and Delaware. Only 4 percent of Georgia’s roads were rated in poor condition, while 13 percent of North Carolina roads were.
Connecticut had the highest percentage of poor roads, at 57 percent, followed by Rhode Island at 54 percent and California with 50 percent.
The U.S. Department of Transportation used 2013 ASCE data to rank states last year in the percentage of roads in poor and mediocre condition.
South Carolina’s 40 percent ranked 37th among states, meaning 36 states had higher percentages of their roads rated poor or in mediocre condition.
But TRIP's study found that bad roads overall cost South Carolina drivers $5.4 billion yearly in damage and accidents costs and congestion delays, or an average of almost $1,400 per driver.
"Essentially what it points out is the state doesn't have the resources to maintain the system that it has," Moretti, of TRIP, said of its ratings. "The state needs to improve the conditions of roads, highways and bridges. It needs to make significant improvements in roadway safety."
Some of the criticism aimed at the state Department of Transportation over state House and Senate plans to raise the gas tax actually concerns an agency separate from DOT.
The State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which has financed major road and bridge projects in the state since 1997, has for years been a magnet for controversy, called a "shadow" DOT, and lambasted for acting out of political influence.
Lawmakers last year sought to address issues with the bank by requiring that all its project decisions also be approved by the DOT board, which must apply certain objective criteria when ranking projects.
But that hasn't stopped critics of plans to raise the gas tax from using past examples of the Infrastructure Bank's actions as ammunition in pushing for more reform.
Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican who opposes the current Senate road-funding plan, wants to abolish the Infrastructure Bank and make DOT a cabinet agency, calling past spending by the organization a "Third-World political-spoils" system.
He mentions two highway projects to prove his point. One highway in the Pee Dee, known as the Pamplico Highway, was a two-lane road in Florence County that was converted to four lanes with the aid of $100 million in Infrastructure Bank funding. An official with an organization criticizing the bank was photographed laying down in the middle of the road to illustrate how little traffic there was on it.
At the same time, Davis said, the late Sen. Clementa Pinckney asked officials for $54 million to widen a four-mile stretch of U.S. 17 in Jasper County from two lanes to four, arguing that traffic fatalities on the road required its widening. He said that request was not granted.
"It is why, despite substantial increases in funding, our roads remain in poor and substandard condition, and why simply focusing on the revenue side of the equation will never be the answer," Davis said.
Other lawmakers also have called for the Infrastructure Bank to be abolished or its functions somehow blended with DOT.
A prime criticism is that a majority of the seven-member board is appointed by two lawmakers, the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore. Davis argues that means two legislative leaders effectively control financing that has totaled more than $4 billion over the years.
Last year's reforms also lowered the threshold of Infrastructure Bank projects to $25 million from $100 million to allow more counties and communities to submit applications.
Much of the bank's early financing was targeted at major new projects, including the Ravenel Bridge, the state's most expensive transportation project, and freeways in Horry County designed to aid the Grand Strand's traffic flow.
Critics contended that most of the financing went to a handful of counties, while supporters noted that those counties supplied a local match and submitted projects with state significance.
Davis and others argue that the issue is one of accountability, their primary rub with the Senate's road-funding plan.
Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, which has argued that reform should come before funding, also would like to see the Infrastructure Bank abolished, saying the state does not need two transportation agencies.
Daniel Brennan, state director of Americans For Prosperity South Carolina, has argued for reform, too, saying a poll shows most South Carolinians do not want the gas tax or fee increases.
“As the roads have gotten worse, there have been some roads that have gotten wider even though they have very little traffic,” Brennan said. “There have been some that have gotten repaved even though there have been very few potholes. You kind of have to ask yourself, if the secretary was accountable to the governor who is accountable to all the citizens of the state, would some of these projects get done? And I think anybody with common sense would say absolutely not.”
Davis, Brennan and others want lawmakers to allow the governor to appoint the DOT secretary and abolish the commission. Currently, the governor appoints the commission that then hires the secretary. But the commissioners must be nominated and screened by lawmakers, who must also approve any commissioner's removal by the governor.
A House-passed bill would allow the governor to appoint commissioners without being screened or nominated by lawmakers -- a plan some legislators fear would put too much power in the hands of the governor.
It would also raise just shy of $600 million more per year for roads, chiefly by raising the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon over five years. The sales tax cap on cars also would be raised from $300 to $500 and other fees would be raised or created, such as a special fee for hybrid vehicles.
A Senate plan under consideration would raise almost $800 million more per year through a bevy of fee increases, new fees and an increase of 12 cents in the gas tax over six years, in addition to indexing the tax for inflation. The plan would cap the tax so it could never exceed the gas tax in any North Carolina or Georgia county. The bill at present does not change any DOT governance and Republicans have signaled they will oppose it unless it contains more work on DOT reforms.
Rick Todd, president of the South Carolina Trucking Association, which supports raising the gas tax for road repairs, said while he favors accountability, he thinks some people opposed to the roads plan are simply against any increase in the gas tax.
He said those who do not travel much or travel only certain local routes “may view the world and see the needs completely differently than someone who just puts a lot of miles on the car.”
“I understand people complaining about 'I don’t want to pay for road repairs in another part of the state I never go to.'" But those other parts of the state, " can have the same people too,” he said.
“Every other state has bit this bullet. It’s frustrating we’re not willing to do it ourselves.”
He said people often do not think about the myriad of expenses in running DOT that are necessary not only to support paving and bridge projects but also to comply with state and federal laws, including engineers, planners, attorneys, and maintenance workers and supplies.
“I represent businesses,” Todd said. “And businesses understand overhead. I think as citizens we should trust the professional staff at DOT who try their best to be good stewards of the public’s resources. And to those who don’t want to give them the benefit of the doubt, I think they are being unreasonable. I think a lot of the doubt is sowed by the naysayers, people who are just anti-tax.”
Brennan said he doesn’t believe corruption exists at DOT and praises the agency's director, Christy Hall. But he does believe a small group of officials “are misusing state funds.”
“I think the system is set up to fail,” he said. “And I think it has shown itself over and over again.”
Michelin North America President Pete Selleck, who has spoken in favor of the House plan, takes a different view, saying the state's infrastructure problem is a "crisis."
"The road conditions every year are getting worse," he said. "And they're getting worse at a faster rate. I think the Legislature over the last couple of years has come to grips with the issue. They recognize now something has to be done. They recognize they are the only ones that can do it and they recognize there are no simple, politically expedient solutions. They've got to do the right thing for the long-term."
Drivers and vehicle owners may be the ones most affected by any increase in the gas tax but a bevy of groups have lined up to support and oppose any such legislation.
At press conferences, legislative hearings and other Statehouse battlefronts, groups on both sides of the issue have spoken up.
On the pro side to raise the gas tax and fees, the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads has led the fight for several years.
The group is a coalition of businesses and business groups impacted by the state’s transportation system, including paving companies, materials firms, trucking companies and the Upstate Chamber Coalition.
The Alliance argues that poor roads affect citizens' quality of life, costing time, money and lives.
"Road conditions will only worsen if increased investment is not made available at the state level," the group argued recently in an email. "Continued inaction on a long-term transportation plan will result in greater road deterioration and lead to a competitive disadvantage for our state. South Carolina cannot afford to wait another year for sustainable road funding legislation."
Other groups that have spoken in favor of raising funds for roads include the S.C. Trucking Association, the S.C. Agribusiness Council, the S.C. Economic Developers Association, the S.C. Maritime Association, the S.C. Manufacturers Alliance, the S.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Carolinas Associated General Contractors.
"The South Carolina business community has long known the cost of our deplorable roads in South Carolina," Ted Pitts, president of the state chamber, said recently. "If you look at the cost of time, the cost of lives and the cost of jobs, there's actually a real cost to South Carolinians you can put in a dollar figure. A lot of the debate that will occur will be about charging South Carolinians more for fixing our roads when really the dialogue should be about how much it's costing South Carolinians to do nothing."
Executives with individual companies also have spoken this year in support of the legislation, including Selleck, of Michelin North America; Lou Kennedy, CEO of Nephron Pharmaceuticals; and Roger Schrum, vice president of Sonoco.
The opposition against a gas tax hike has been led by Americans For Prosperity South Carolina, the state branch of the grassroots, anti-tax group with chapters in 35 states. Last year, the group campaigned against the gas tax in senators’ districts, leading some senators to complain about misleading robocalls.
The group this year says it opposes the Senate road-funding plan unless and until DOT is made a cabinet agency and the Legislature enacts tax reform.
"Everyone agrees that the roads and infrastructure here in South Carolina are in bad shape," Brennan, state director of the group, told an audience recently. "We also agree that the legislation passed by the House, which is a lot more than a gas tax increase, is not the answer to the root cause of the transportation problems we face in our state."
The state, he said, has gone into debt by billions of dollars for "pet projects and corporate welfare over the last decade."
"Our transportation system hasn't received the attention it deserves because the organizational structure is set up to fail," he said. "We have an exceptionally qualified DOT secretary in Christy Hall. But she cannot bring about the change needed at DOT until she only answers to one boss, the governor who is accountable to all the people of South Carolina."
Also opposing such legislation has been the SC Club for Growth, Concerned Veterans for America-SC, the South Carolina Policy Council, the Carolina Independent Auto Dealers Association ,which is opposed to the proposal to double the sales tax cap on cars, Coastal Carolina Conservatives, as well as various TEA parties in the state.
Dianne Belsom, president of the Laurens County Tea Party, is among the opponents.
"We are taxed enough already," she told a rally recently. "I think we the people are sick of sending our money to the state and the federal government only to see it mismanaged and wasted. We are calling for our Legislature to do the right thing and not pass some ridiculous tax increase without the necessary reforms."
R.J. May, executive director of the SC Club For Growth, said the group supports a "sensible solution to our failing infrastructure."
"When our roads, bridges, ports and railways are strong, we stand to benefit from more and higher paying jobs," he said. "But our roads problem is not a funding problem. The roads bill is not a roads solution. It is a tax increase on hard-working South Carolinians, one of the largest tax increases in state history."
Last year, Americans For Prosperity volunteers made 30,000 calls in addition to sending mailers and post cards to oppose a gas tax increase, according to the organization.
State lobbying records show some of the leading groups on the issue have registered lobbyists but the records only offer a snapshot of what is spent on lobbying activity.
Americans For Prosperity listed lobbying expenses of almost $13,000 for 2015 but none for the last half of 2016 and did not file an expense report for the first half of that year.
The Alliance To Fix Our Roads listed lobbying expenses of almost $24,000 for 2016, according to the State Ethics Commission, which maintains all the reports.
Conditions of a road in Spartanburg County, photographged by William Meyer of Moore, a former Spartanburg County deputy
(Photo: William Meyer)
How South Carolina came to own so many roads
South Carolina and much of the country was in an economic downturn in the early 1920s when the federal government announced it would jumpstart employment through a highway building program.
The catch, according to a history of the South Carolina Department of Transportation, was that only state roads would receive aid.
That spurred a rush by county leaders, according to the book "Highway Department," to get some local roads into the state system.
By 1925, only 225 miles of 4,740 in the state system were paved. A bond bill in 1929 increased the paved numbers, but by 1935 the state still maintained only 6,000 miles, two thirds of which were paved, according to Walter Edgar's "South Carolina A History."
From 1946 to 1950, 5,300 miles of highways were built and 4,900 farm-to-market roads, now known as secondary routes, were paved, Edgar wrote.
But the real stimulus for expanding the state's road program came from lawmakers, former legislators said, before the age of home rule.
Legislators then oversaw local roads and helped transfer them into the state system.
"The large number of roads we've got in the state system are directly attributable to legislators trying to help their local areas back in the day when there really was no other way to respond to it," said former Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens, who served in the Legislature from 1979 until last year. "There was no other pot of money available."
Sometimes farmers or businesses called, wishing a road were paved, he said. Sometimes school officials worried about school buses traveling on certain roads.
"Whatever it was, that was what got them brought into the system," he said. "That was the way the highway system developed."
Former Sen. John Land, a Clarendon County lawyer and former highway commissioner who served in the Legislature from 1975-2012, said officials' decisions decades ago to develop one state road system with a higher set of standards was a "wise" one.
The policy, he said, greatly aided rural communities who could not have developed or paved roads on their own.
He said the federal aid program for secondary roads "was one of the best systems for modernizing rural America." He said his county now gets enough state money to pave up to 2 miles a year. Federal aid decades ago allowed his county to pave close to 30 miles.
"I am in favor still of one state paved road system, maintained by the state," he said.
Today, South Carolina has the fourth-largest state-maintained road system in the nation, with more than 41,000 miles.
Primary routes - major state and U.S. roads - make up 9,517 miles, while federal-aid secondary routes comprise 10,370 miles. The least traveled secondary roads, many of them short roads, some in front of schools or cemeteries or dead ends, are not eligible for federal aid and total almost 21,000 miles.
State law enacted in the 1950s formalized the process of transferring roads, allowing local roads to be placed into the state system by mutual consent with DOT. The law was amended in 2013 allowing the state to give back roads if they were determined to be of “low traffic importance," and the counties, government agencies or private entities or persons receiving them consented.
Today, the roads are seen as a part of the state’s infrastructure problem because DOT cannot afford so many roads and the local roads do not connect towns or traverse the state. Lawmakers want to give many of them back but counties have been reluctant, fearful that the state will not provide the funding to keep them maintained.
Initial proposals to force local governments to accept the roads have been replaced with optional plans if local governments choose.