SC DOT chief: State needs $29 billion to make roads ‘good’

jself@thestate.comJanuary 16, 2013 

— The state Department of Transportation needs $29.3 billion over the next two decades to make South Carolina’s road system “good” again, the agency’s head, Robert St. Onge, told a Senate committee Wednesday.

But a request for added money, $1.5 billion a year for 20 years, is not included in the agency’s 2013 budget request, St. Onge said after the Senate Transportation Committee meeting.

The department needs a way to pay for major road construction projects in addition to its road maintenance program. That would require more money. Raising the gas tax – opposed by St. Onge’s boss, Gov. Nikki Haley – or higher fees for driver’s licenses and automobile registrations are among several proposals that a Transportation Department study committee would like lawmakers to consider.

Working only with current state funding, the transportation secretary says his job is “to manage the decline of the state highway system.”

The state now pays for major road projects through its Transportation Infrastructure Bank, created in 1997. To qualify, local governments applying for the grants must provide local matching dollars.

However, state Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, says the board overseeing the bank is politically motivated, using its power to pay for projects in members’ communities.

Peeler is co-sponsoring a bill that would give the DOT control of the Infrastructure Bank. The DOT, he said, “has a statewide perspective, not just a select few controlling those millions of dollars going to certain areas of the state.”

But state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, a member of the Infrastructure Bank’s board, said it does not need reform. It has provided a “tremendous” benefit to the state and is “well run,” he said.

Instead, Leatherman said the General Assembly needs to find money for the DOT.

Raising the state’s gas tax, last raised in 1987 and the fourth-lowest in the nation, will not meet the state’s needs alone, St. Onge said, adding that every bit of extra money nonetheless helps.

Both Leatherman and Peeler said raising the gas tax is unlikely, adding it is time for lawmakers to discuss solutions.

St. Onge also said his agency has recovered completely from a “cash-flow problem” in 2011 that delayed millions of dollars in payments to contractors.

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