Bill Ross travels around South Carolina spreading his message that the state needs to find more money to fix its roads. On Oct. 24, he visited Aiken, where he spoke at a Kiwanis Club meeting in Cumberland Village.
“Everything has got to be on the table,” said Ross, who is the executive director of the South Carolina Alliance To Fix Our Roads. “I don't think there is any one answer.”
Members of Ross' Columbia-based nonprofit organization include the South Carolina Trucking Association, South Carolina Farm Bureau and AAA Carolinas.
The Alliance supports increasing the Palmetto State's motor fuel user fee of 16 cents per gallon, which hasn't been raised since 1987 and is one of the lowest in the nation.
“We depend on 90 percent of the revenues for our roads coming from the motor fuel user fee (commonly known as the gas tax),” Ross said.
South Carolina also has an inspection fee of $.0025 and an environmental impact fee of $.0050 per gallon for all petroleum products.
“If you raise the motor fuel user fee by 10 cents a gallon, it would bring in a little over $300 million per year,” Ross said.
But that amount still would not be enough based on the figures in the Alliance's “Road Map to the Future” plan, which calls for $600 million a year for 10 years to fund interstate expansion, bridges and resurfacing. The 10-year total would be $6 billion.
Earlier this year, South Carolina's legislature approved a funding package of around $600 million to improve and repair roads, but had to look outside the usual revenue streams to come up with the money.
Late in 2012, the Transportation Infrastructure Task Force, a group of transportation professionals and private citizens, issued a report on South Carolina's roadways that showed the Palmetto State would need $48.3 billion through 2033 to upgrade all of its highways to a condition of “good.”
Other options for raising money to repair roads mentioned by Ross included indexing the motor fuel user fee, introducing alternative vehicle registration fees, increasing the $300 vehicle sales cap tax and taxing alternative fuel vehicles.
“This past year, I've probably sat down across the table from at least half of the senators and probably a third of the House members in the state,” Ross said. “Every one of them will tell you, 'Yes, we need to increase the motor fuel user fee.' But then they say that they, realistically, wouldn't be able to override a veto (by Gov. Nikki Haley).”
When someone in the Kiwanis Club audience suggested turning more stretches of highway into toll roads, Ross responded that such a strategy would not be easy to implement.
“No. 1, you've got to get federal permission for toll roads,” he said. “Also, there is a state law in South Carolina that prohibits turning existing roads into toll roads. ”
South Carolina has the fourth largest highway system in the nation, and the demands on it are growing, Ross said.
“Our highways have been neglected for a long time,” Ross said. “Sixty-nine percent of our roads are in the poor to fair category. Only 12 percent are very good, and 19 percent are good.”
Ross described Aiken County's roads as “pretty decent overall.”
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard.
She has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.