Providing constituents with decent roads and bridges to drive on used to be a no-brainer for politicians. Now, for some reason, politicians balk at fixing crumbling roads even when voters seem to demand it.
In South Carolina last week, Gov. Nikki Haley said that she has a plan to pay for road and bridge work – but she intends to keep it a secret until January, assuming, of course, that she is reelected in November. She did, however, specify that she will not support raising taxes to pay for road projects nor would she rely on the so-called “money tree,” the money that materalizes when state revenues are higher in the spring than what they were predicted to be the previous fall.
She added that if the Legislature approves an increase in the gasoline tax, she would veto it.
This is frustating on many levels. For one, if the governor has a viable plan to pay for road and bridge repairs, she should share it and make it part of the debate with her Democratic opponent, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign.
For another, South Carolina is long overdue in confronting its genuine infrastructure needs. The state needs real solutions now, not more than six months down the road.
The state Department of Transportation says it needs an additional $1.5 billion a year for the next 20 years just to bring roads up to good conditions. State lawmakers approved a $500 million bond issue for road repairs in 2013 as well as one-time allocations of $40 million for road repairs and $50 million for bridge repairs, but that is a tiny fraction of what is needed.
South Carolina has more than 66,000 miles of public roads, one of the highest per capita totals in the nation. According to an annual report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers, more than 40 percent of those roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
The report estimates that more than 21 percent of the state’s 9,271 bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
According to the report, driving on bad roads costs South Carolina motorists $811 million a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs – or about $255 per motorist. Drivers need to ask themselves whether they would rather continue to pay for car repairs or pay a little more at the gas pump to help fund road work.
Raising the gasoline tax to pay for road and bridge repairs is both fair and sensible. South Carolina’s 16-cents-per-gallon tax is one of the lowest in the nation, and it hasn’t been increased since 1987.
The gas tax is virtually equivalent to a user fee. Those who travel more on state roads pay more at the pump.
The tax also has the virtue of capturing revenues from out-of-state drivers who buy gasoline here while visiting or driving through the state.
Some argue that as vehicles become more efficient, revenues from the gas tax will diminish, making it an uncertain source of road money for the future. That’s a valid point, but the tax still is the most significant source of money for road and bridge repairs, maintenance and construction, and it is likely to remain so for some time.
If Haley has a better plan for fixing the state’s roads and bridges, she should reveal it – now, during the campaign, when voters will have a chance to look it over and compare it with what Sheheen might have to offer.