Greenville Online, 7 January 2016
COLUMBIA — When the state Senate failed to take up and vote on long-term road-funding plans last year, some senators attacked the state’s transportation leaders and their spending, arguing the highway department’s budget had increased by hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years but the state’s roads were still in bad shape.
By November, however, state lawmakers were falling over themselves to say good things about the agency and its work re-opening roads and bridges in the face of October’s catastrophic flooding.
In fact, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, who also chairs the Senate Finance Committee, was so pleased with new Transportation Secretary Christy Hall that he told other senators Hall should be confirmed by the Senate as quickly as possible.
Three months after the rains have stopped, some lawmakers say the Department of Transportation’s response to the flooding and the leadership of the agency will help in the debate over road funding when lawmakers return to the divisive issue this year.
“If you look at DOT’s response in the aftermath of the flooding, the response was above and beyond what many expected,” Rep. Gary Simrill, who chaired a House panel that produced legislation last year to increase road funding and reform DOT, told The Greenville News. “So I think the stock of DOT and the leadership and administration of DOT, all the way down to workers, certainly was elevated by what we saw.”
Others say the criticism last year was on the spending and the decision-making structure of the agency, not its rank-and-file workers who deserve praise for their flood work. They say the state’s transportation structure needs to be addressed before additional funding is sent to the agency.
Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican and the chief critic of the way spending decisions are made by DOT’s board, said the system remains “wasteful.” He pointed to a December decision by highway commissioners to move ahead with a plan that could jumpstart the $1 billion Interstate 73 project proposed from I-95 to the Grand Strand.
“You just saw the DOT commission rallying around building a brand new interstate, I-73, at the same time you have existing interstates like I-95 and I-26 that are in desperate need of repairs and expansion,” he said. “It’s particularly disturbing to hear the vice chairman of the DOT talk about how he and the other commissioners are so excited about the new interstate. I wish they would get as excited about taking care of and improving what we already have.”
A road-funding bill remains at the top of the Senate’s calendar, though the issue has been chewed on by lawmakers for years without resolve.
A year ago, Gov. Nikki Haley proposed raising the state’s gas tax by 10 cents per gallon, but only if lawmakers also changed the way DOT commissioners are chosen and adopted a reduction in the state’s personal income tax rate.
The House last April passed a bill that would raise more than $300 million for road repairs, change the system for picking highway commissioners and offer a carrot to counties willing to take some of the local roads in the state’s inventory, with a tax cut much smaller than Haley wanted.
The Senate Finance Committee in response passed a bill that raised the gas tax, last raised in 1987, but did not address reforms nor an income tax cut.
The Senate adjourned without acting on either bill, though it did approve spending $216 million in surplus money for county transportation committees to use on secondary roads.
The estimated annual need for the state’s infrastructure ranges from $400 million to $1.4 billion.
This year, lawmakers return to Columbia with an estimated surplus of more than $1 billion and plenty of uses for the money, from flood relief to police body cameras to increased education funding.
They also will consider funding for a highway agency held in much higher esteem.
“I’ve never been prouder of a group of people in my entire career,” said DOT Vice Chairman Mike Wooten. “I think every organization is a direct reflection of the person at the top. We have the right leadership at DOT for the first time in a long time. I sincerely appreciate the governor’s trust in moving Christy to that position because she is the right leader.”
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms said he hopes the agency’s work on flooded roads will help speed Hall’s Senate confirmation and convince lawmakers to retain the transportation secretary form of governing DOT.
“The folks who want to continue to throw stones at DOT will continue to do that,” he said. “They may say you didn’t do it here but you certainly wasted all your money there. I don’t think that goes away. But if anybody takes an objective look at the storm, I think they did take the limited resources that DOT had, they applied them correctly for the benefit of the state. And they saved the state a lot more money than they would have under a different leadership scheme. Christy made the decision, ‘We’re going to repair as many of these roads in-house as we can right now’ and they did.”
Sen. Thomas McElveen, a Sumter Democrat, said he thinks the way transportation in the state is handled needs to be restructured but he said Hall’s hiring as the secretary of transportation has been “refreshing.”
“She is by far the best secretary of transportation we have had since I’ve been serving,” he said. “I think she understands the agency and the road system of the state. She’s been a refreshing change for people like me.”
House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister of Greenville said trust in the agency is critical in moving forward with the funding issue.
“That stops all discussion if you can’t trust leadership,” he said. “You can’t do anything beneficial or you can’t add resources to an agency where you don’t believe in the leadership. I think that is a critical component that will be very important as we decide how to move forward on infrastructure and DOT reform.”
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler said DOT earned plaudits for its response to the flood but those good points were erased with the decision regarding I-73.
“They took one step forward with their flood work and two steps backward with this I-73 proposal,” he said.
Sen. Lee Bright, a Spartanburg County Republican, said he wants to wait on a Legislative Audit Council report of DOT before praising the agency.
“At this point, to say that because of the flood response that means all the other problems go away is definitely not the logic that I’m going to use,” he said.
Davis argues that the decision-making of the DOT board and the board of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank is “politically biased in favor of those areas that have the most powerful politicians” and biased in favor of new projects as opposed to maintaining existing roads.
“Until you get to the heart of that problem, until you change the DOT structure and the SIB structure, you’re not going to get any meaningful difference in the condition of our roads and bridges,” he said. “The good news is I think there is a lot more awareness of that fact now than there was last year.”
Davis, who led a successful filibuster last year against the Senate road-funding plan, said he expects the Senate’s leaders to signal early if they are willing to include reform with funding.
“I think there will be a roads bill,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to have leadership in the Senate quite so eager or willing to pass a bill that doesn’t have expenditure reform.”