COLUMBIA -- South Carolina lawmakers should set aside $500 million a year to spend on road and bridge repairs, the state's Democratic nominee for governor says.
Any more than that, Sen. Vincent Sheheen said Tuesday, is financially unrealistic.
Sheheen says while he is open to suggestions where the money can come from, he does not want to raise the state's gas tax and believes most of the money could be supplied by dedicating 5 percent of the state's General Fund and surplus revenues each year there is growth in revenue, a plan first advocated by Senate Transportation Chairman Larry Grooms, a Berkeley County Republican.
Sheheen also proposes that the state borrow up to $1 billion using bond funds to give the funding effort a kick-start, that the state Department of Transportation give priority to repairing existing roads, and that the state DOT Commission be abolished, giving the governor sole authority over the state's transportation secretary.
Grooms told The Greenville News that he supports Sheheen's plan.
The campaign of Gov. Nikki Haley, who has said she will propose a road-funding plan in January to lawmakers, issued a statement saying Sheheen's plan is similar to ideas already voiced by the governor, who has long threatened to veto any gas tax increase. Haley has proposed redirecting some agency funds and using projected surpluses for roads.
"Although Vince Sheheen has previously said his roads plan included tax and fee increases, we are pleased to see that as election day draws nearer, he has decided to copy the governor's plan — and spend money the legislature already has," said Chaney Adams, a Haley campaign spokesman.
Tom Ervin, an independent candidate for governor, criticized both Sheheen's and Haley's ideas to fix the state's roads.
"A transportation plan that is secured by Sen. Sheheen's borrowed funds and Gov. Haley's projected revenue is as dangerous and pathetic as the roads in this state," Ervin, a former judge, said. "These are the types of empty promises we've come to expect from typical politicians in an election year."
Lawmakers have agreed the state's infrastructure is in need of fixing but have not agreed on how to fund the repairs.
A bill giving senators a menu of funding choices, including increases in the driver's license and vehicle registration fees and an indexing of the gas tax for inflation, died in the Senate this year without any debate, even though it had received priority status.
A state task force estimated two years ago the cost to bring the state's roads and bridges up to acceptable condition was $29 billion over 20 years. The state's gas tax, one of the lowest in the nation, was last raised in 1987.
Only about 15 percent of the state's primary and secondary roads are rated in "good" condition by DOT, which operates the fourth-largest state-maintained road system in the country.
Sheheen said he thinks the governor's job is to set a goal for lawmakers and not spell out exactly how they should reach that goal. He said his goal is for the state to eventually set aside $500 million a year in recurring revenue for road and bridge repairs.
"I think we can do better and we should," he said.
The mainstay of his plan to reach $500 million would be to dedicate a set percentage of General Fund and surplus revenue until the Legislature could set aside $500 million a year. He said not all years would involve equal amounts of money because revenue collections fluctuate and there could be an economic downturn.
But he said the state should reach $500 million in five years, the same goal Grooms has set.
But Grooms' plan was not embraced by either legislative chamber. Sheheen said he thinks the difference will be a push from the governor's office, which he charged has neglected the state's roads during the past four years.
"What we've lacked for a road reform and improvement plan is support from the governor," Sheheen said. "I think we will pass this. I think there's no question we will make dramatic improvements under a new governor in our infrastructure."
Sheheen, who talked about funding ideas such as raising the driver's license and vehicle registration fee in his book, "The Right Way: Getting the Palmetto State Back on Track," said all ideas should be on the table for funding road and bridge repairs.
But he said he thinks the gas tax should not be increased because it is a declining source of income.
"It's why we're in the mess we're in now because we solely rely on it," he said. "If all we do is rely on the gas tax, we'll be right back having this discussion five years from now, 10 years from now. Also, as a person from rural South Carolina, I can tell you the people who bear the brunt of it are folks in poor communities who have to travel for work."
Sheheen suggested legislators look at ideas such as collecting more taxes from out-of-state truckers and possibly even leasing the state's rest stops.
Grooms said past attempts to reform the DOT board have not gone anywhere in the Senate and predicted a proposal to abolish the board would fail in the Legislature. He also said leasing rest stops to create new gas stations and restaurants would compete with existing businesses.
But he said he supports Sheheen's plan overall.
Sheheen said his plan would not end new construction, just place existing roads as the priority. Supporters of the proposed Interstate 73 to Myrtle Beach, he said, know that the project will only be built if there is substantial federal funding available.
He said he also is proposing the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank be folded into the DOT. The bank, which funds major projects using bond funds and local matches, is now governed by its own board. Sheheen said the bank is valuable to the state as a financial instrument but should operate using the same road-ranking system lawmakers put into place in 2007 for DOT road and bridge projects.
A 2007 provision that allows the governor to appoint the state's transportation secretary expires next year if the Legislature does not renew it.
Sheheen said he would ask lawmakers to do so if he were governor, arguing their reluctance to do so thus far has been a perception that the governor has not been engaged in fixing the state's roads and pushing lawmakers to fund repairs.
"I'm going to change that," he said. "We're going to be very accountable, open, engaged and efficient."