COLUMBIA — Six senators plan on spending the next two weeks trying to put together a bill that will increase the amount of money South Carolina spends building and repairing its road and bridges.
The Transportation Funding Special Subcommittee met for the first time Tuesday, listening to basic details about eight bills to get more money to fix roads and bridges. The group plans at least five more meetings over the next two weeks to get more details about all of the plans and listen to ideas and concerns from the public.
The bills contain a number of ideas, but one thing none of them do is raise the state’s 16-cents-per-gallon gas tax, unchanged since 1987. Instead, there are plenty of other suggestions how to get extra money to roads from borrowing $500 million to building toll lanes on interstates to setting aside the sales tax paid on vehicle purchases only for road work to letting counties add an extra penny or two to their gas tax.
“I don’t think it will be a single bullet, a silver bullet. I imagine it will be a combination of two or three things or all of the above,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia.
There is also plenty of discussion about setting aside part of increases in state revenue for roads, an idea supported by Gov. Nikki Haley.
The goal is to put together one bill that can be considered by the Senate Finance Committee early next month.
The House passed its own highway funding bill that takes money collected on sales tax on vehicle purchases and moves it from the general fund to road work. House members rejected raising the gas tax by 10 cents or raising the $300 sales tax cap on car sales.
One big question is whether many of these plans can raise enough money. Business and community leaders said the state needs to spend about $600 million a year over the next decade or so on critical projects to widen interstates, fix bridges and resurface highways. The Department of Transportation is spending about $1.5 billion a year on the state’s roads, with about 60 percent of that money coming from the federal government.
The bills that direct increases in revenue to roads raise less than $100 million a year. The proposal to redirect vehicle sales tax is worth just over $100 million. If every county raised its gas tax by two cents, it would raise about $60 million.
Sen. Yancy McGill pointed out several times that fixing roads is a lot more expensive than it used to be. He estimated it cost about $18,000 to repave a mile of road when the gas tax was last raised in 1987, compared to at least $100,000 today. And the project’s cost even more if the road deteriorates.
“If we don’t do it quick, we’ll be rebuilding all these roads. It won’t be a matter of resurfacing. There will be nothing there to resurface,” said McGill, D-Kingstree.
The subcommittee may also branch into other issues besides funding. South Carolina’s highway system includes nearly 41,500 highway miles and 8,400 bridges, making South Carolina’s system the nation’s fourth-largest, funded in part by the fourth-lowest state tax.
Sen. Paul Campbell said the panel also should consider how to get counties and local governments to take responsibility for some roads.
“There are a lot of roads out there – some of them are just driveways – that shouldn’t be on our books,” said Campbell, R-Goose Creek.