Editorial: Mystery plans won’t help fix roads in S.C

  • Posted: Tuesday, July 8, 2014 12:01 a.m.
Gov. Nikki Haley has a plan for funding road improvements, but indicated it won’t be announced until January, after the November election.
Gov. Nikki Haley has a plan for funding road improvements, but indicated it won’t be announced until January, after the November election.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley may have what South Carolina needs to fix our crumbling roads and bridges, but she’s not telling us until January. All we know after her announcement last week is that she’s working on a plan that will be a road map for future infrastructure funding, and that it won’t include a tax increase.

At this point, it is a clear campaign ploy on her part and a decision that doesn’t help move our state forward when it comes to finding a comprehensive, long-term plan.

We need collaboration on an issue of this magnitude, but the governor is indicating she won’t start that dialogue until after the election. Her plan may be an effective fix, but to keep this mystery plan under wraps for six months is almost inexplicable.

Virtually no one denies that our roads are in need of substantial upgrades. The state has an estimated shortfall of $30 billion over the next 20 years, and that’s if we plan to get our roads merely to good condition by 2033.

Additionally, South Carolina has one of the largest state-maintained road systems in the country, and although there has been pushes for local governments to take more responsibility, the state is still significantly on the hook for maintaining it.

Lawmakers have previously discussed increasing the state’s unsustainably low gas-tax, which is 16 cents a gallon and hasn’t been raised in more than 20 years. That’s a viable solution, at least in the short term, particularly because it’s currently the fourth lowest in the nation and is about half of what’s charged in bordering Georgia and North Carolina. Although her road funding plan remains way too vague, we do know that Haley will veto any proposal that includes a hike in the gas tax. Such a statement clearly handcuffed the debate over road improvements during the past legislative session.

The legislature didn’t completely fail to address road improvements – approving about $800 million in one-time funding for roads in 2013 – but didn’t pass any long-term appropriations for repairs.

One of the main goals in the second half of the session was to discuss a long-term solution. The debate clearly became toxic to some degree because of the idea of raising the gas tax and Haley’s complete objection to it. Consequently, nothing significant was passed in 2014.

Local lawmakers are understandably hesitant to get behind a gas tax increase, but recognize the need for a well-rounded debate.

S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, believes a discussion needs to take place, and criticized Haley for not unveiling her plan now.

“Plans don’t just pop up. If she says she has a plan, she needs to put it forth so we can begin work. A governor’s plan is always just a starting point, and it’s the legislature that needs to figure out how it can be worked with or modified.”

S.C. Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said a lot of ideas have been tossed around behind the scenes over the past few years, but agreed with Taylor as far as the need for open debate on the issue.

“Everybody recognizes that we have a need. Everybody recognizes that in order to address that need it’s going to cost a lot of money,” Massey said. “The disagreement comes about with how you’re going to pay for it.”

The governor clearly understands this is a need too, but we don’t know how she plans to pay for it. Her general election opponent, S.C. Sen. Vincent Sheheen. D-Camden, has pointed to a number of ways he would fund road and bridge repairs, including long-term bonds, dedicating general fund surpluses for infrastructure and increasing vehicle registration fees.

These could be solutions, but the legislature will eventually have to debate the issue and develop a more complete picture.

Right now, Haley seems to see the issue as merely a form of political leverage – withholding her plan until after the election.

With the criticism coming her way, even from those in her own party, it may ultimately prove to boost Sheheen as we move closer to the fall.

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