Gov. McMaster

Gov. Henry McMaster, shown presiding over the South Carolina Senate on Jan. 10, 2017 as lieutenant governor, has asked President Donald Trump for $5 billion for road repairs.

SEAN RAYFORD

South Carolina lawmakers are supporting legislation to increase the state gas tax in hopes of repairing the state’s infrastructure.

“It’s not one that we didn’t anticipate,” Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg said. “The gasoline tax offers the greatest opportunity to generate a decent amount of cash.”

South Carolina’s gas tax rate has not been changed since 1987.

House Majority Leader, Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, introduced the plan to raise the state’s current 16.75-cent-a-gallon tax by 2 cents a year over five years.

The full 10-cent increase is estimated to raise roughly $600 million a year.

On Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee amended and adopted the bill. It will be added to the House legislative calendar next week for debate in the coming weeks.

“South Carolina has the most dangerous roads in the country,” House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said in a press release following the meeting. “Businesses and job creators continue to stress the importance of infrastructure repair as a necessity to further economic investments.”

The bill also includes:

  • A new Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund for infrastructure repair, with money used solely used on fixing roads and bridges.
  • A $250 fee for motorists who move to South Carolina and register their vehicles in the state.
  • A $60 fee for hybrid vehicles and a $120 fee for electric vehicles. The fees would be paid every two years.
  • A biennial motor vehicle registration fee increase of $16.
  • An increase in the sales tax cap on vehicle sales from $300 to $500.
  • A new motor carrier road user fee for out-to-state truckers.
  • Reforms in governance of the S.C. Department of Transportation Highway Commission.

“A gradual increase to the state’s motor fuel user fee is the most responsible option to generate a long-term, sustainable funding stream for road repair,” Lucas said. “I will not support using general fund revenue for road appropriation again.”

Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, is glad to see reliable funding options that have been “needed for a very long time.”

“We now have the lowest gas tax in the entire country,” Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg said. “It is long overdue for a gas tax increase.”

Bamberg said the tax will be “equitable across the board” because motorists driving on the roads more frequently will, in turn, have to pay more.

Barton Swaim, communications director for the libertarian South Carolina Policy Council, disagrees with the tax increase and said there is currently no accountability for taxpayers.

“There’s an assumption out there that this is just a revenue problem,” he said. “Until you change the accountability structure, we’re not going to be willing to dump more money into a system that doesn’t work.”

Swaim said unlike states where the department of transportation is under the governor, South Carolina’s use of a DOT commission means specific roads take priority in the interests of the commission’s members.

The commission is comprised of eight members, seven of whom are elected by the legislative delegations of each of the state's congressional districts and one at-large member appointed by the governor. Each commissioner must be qualified and screened by the Joint Transportation Committee prior to election or appointment.

Swaim said the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which selects and assists in financing major qualified projects by providing loans and other financial assistance, needs to be abolished.

“Roads are falling apart while that thing is funding needles expansions,” he said. “Money is being diverted from maintenance … and put via the infrastructure bank to expanding roads in politically important counties.”

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said constituents who oppose the tax increase have spoken with her, but it is something that cannot be avoided.

“We can either continue to kick the can down the road and our roads fall into greater distress or we can bite the bullet and put money to fixing our roads,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I don’t know how else we will be able to fix our roads if we don’t have the money.”

She said the increase would provide a sustainable source to fund construction projects that would not happen without the additional revenue.

Local senators also agree with the need for a tax increase.

“I think the plan makes sense,” Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, said, noting the proposal should have been brought forward years earlier.

He still is not convinced the amount of revenue generated will be enough.

The DOT has estimated it needs nearly $1 billion a year to repair the roads.

“It’s a nightmare and it’s getting worse,” Matthews said. “It’s costing us more to fix 30 years later.”

“We’re definitely going to need a roads bill this year,” Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said. “We’ve got to come up with a consistent funding mechanism.”

Hutto said roads in nearby states show that “we’re just behind and we’ve got to do something.”

Cobb-Hunter said during drives to Florida, it is possible to tell a difference in the roads when crossing state lines. “Our roads are embarrassing,” she said.

Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall presented a report to the Senate Transportation committee on Feb. 1 on the “State of SCDOT."

Hall reported that long-term funding shortfalls over decades have created the need to reconstruct more than 50 percent of the pavement in the state’s 41,000-mile system. Hundreds of bridges remain structurally deficient.

Bamberg said, “We literally are at a point that if we do not continue to generate new revenue streams, our roads will never be fixed.”

He said that relying on the general fund alone will not be enough and suggested the introduction of casinos in tourist areas such as Myrtle Beach.

“Much of those tax dollars will be generated by out-of-state travelers,” Bamberg said.

Various roads and bridges will be a focus for the lawmakers.

Cobb-Hunter said widening of Interstate 26 should be moved up in priority.

“There is a desperate need to do that with all of the truck traffic that is coming off of the port,” she said.

She added that the bill also needs to clearly mention the funding of rural roads. “I don’t want to leave it up to speculation,” she said.

Hutto agrees that a focus should be placed on secondary roads.

Ott said, “Our secondary roads in our rural counties are plagued with potholes.”

“Much of the funding is going to go towards repairing primary roads,” Bamberg said. “Many of the traffic fatalities that have occurred in this state are on secondary roads.”

Bamberg said secondary roads are narrower, some have fading reflective paint and some have no reflectors at all, making them dangerous.

“There is no excuse for South Carolina’s roads being in the condition that they’re in,” Bamberg said. “The people who suffer from the General Assembly’s lack of action are the citizens.”

In 2015, the House voted 87-20 to approve an increase to the gas tax. The plan failed in the Senate from pressure by political groups.

The lawmakers are more confident in the possibility of this legislation passing with a new governor.

With Nikki Haley becoming ambassador to the United Nations, Lt. Governor Henry McMaster replaced her as South Carolina’s governor.

“I am very hopeful that with the change in leadership that the governor will realize that you can’t fix roads without money,” Cobb-Hunter said.

Hutto said, “Gov. Haley was an impediment.”

“I think we’re going to get a lot more collaboration and open mindedness in terms of dealing with those solutions,” Govan said. “That’s not to say that there’s not going to be work to be done.”

Bamberg is hopeful the House and Senate will be able to operate independently from the governor’s office.

Ott said he is remaining “cautiously optimistic.”

“I think we have a good shot,” he said. “If we’re going to have a chance to have it passed, this is the year.”

McMaster, however, is not committing to the legislative plan. He said Wednesday that raising the gas tax should be the "last resort" and would not say whether the state has reached the "desperate circumstances" necessary for him to approve a tax increase.

On Monday, McMaster asked the federal government for $5 billion to help fund road improvements in South Carolina.

Contact the writer: jmack@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5516.

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T&D Staff Writer

John Mack is a 2016 graduate of Claflin University. He is an Orangeburg native.

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