We know South Carolina’s lawmakers were taxaphobic. But how much proof do they need that people are willing to pay slightly higher taxes if the result is better roads?
A recent tally shows that a number of states have overcome the fear of taxes to raise fees and taxes to pay for transportation improvements. And those states range from bright red to deep blue.
Liberal Maryland raised its gasoline tax by 3.5 cents a gallon. But conservative Wyoming also raised its gas tax – by 10 cents a gallon.
In an even more direct demonstration that voters are willing to support transportation funding at the ballot box, 86 percent of measures calling for higher taxes and fees for infrastructure needs were approved nationwide. And several cities and counties increased their local sales taxes to pay for road and transit improvements, similarly to York County voters’ approval of the Pennies for Progress program.
If S.C. lawmakers need even more proof, the results of a Winthrop University poll released in November showed that a majority of the state’s residents would support an increase in the gas tax to improve roads. While it was only a slim majority, it should give state lawmakers more confidence that they would not be crucified if they endorse raising the state’s 16.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax, the fourth-lowest in the nation.
Voters apparently are beginning to realize that a little more money spent to repair roads can help reduce costly repairs for vehicle damage caused by cracks and potholes.
Raising the gasoline tax alone will not solve the state’s long-term transportation challenges. While we can rejoice that more efficient cars and trucks get better mileage and create less pollution, they also produce less money for fixing roads and bridges as long as the funding is tied to fuel consumption.
With that in mind, some states are trying a more broad-based approach. Virginia, for example, scrapped its 17.5-cent-a-gallon state gasoline tax and replaced it with a 3.5 percent wholesale tax paid by gas stations, increased vehicle registration fees and imposed a special registration fee for hybrid vehicles.
But whatever approach South Carolina chooses, waiting is not a viable option. The state Department of Transportation estimates that the state needs to raise an additional $29 million in additional money over the next 20 years just to maintain the existing highway system, which is fourth-largest per capita in the nation.
But this year, the Legislature appropriated only $141 million from surplus revenues. Of that, $50 million would be used as a down payment to borrow $500 million more for road repairs, with the state diverting $50 million a year from the general fund to pay back the loan.
That’s far too little to keep up with infrastructure needs. Worse, by dedicating money from the general fund, the state risks diverting funding from other crucial needs, such as education.
South Carolina has plenty of leeway to raise its gas tax – something it hasn’t done since 1987 – and still remain competitive with neighboring states. North Carolina’s gas tax is 37.8 cents, and Georgia’s is 28.5 cents.
While that won’t solve the entire problem of crumbling roads and bridges, it is one way to produce hundreds of millions of dollars in needed road money. And more and more evidence indicates that if lawmakers fix our roads, the voters will thank them.