Wednesday, February 6, 2013

From the House

Bluffton Today

Those of you who follow this column with any degree of regularity know it is an interactive tool that I use fairly often to gauge your support for various ideas that come down the political pike. Today is one of those times when I need your help. I need your opinions, your thinking, and your creativity to address a problem we, as a state, have ignored for so long it has become a critical issue that threatens to constrict our economy and reduce our competitiveness in bringing vital new jobs to our state.

I am talking, of course, about the sad state of our transportation infrastructure, our potholed roads and our hundreds of load-limited and failing bridges. You see the problem from our Interstate Highway system, all the way to the cracking and eroded streets around AllJoy Landing.

We like to talk about how we are a business friendly state. We are working to get our tax rates more competitive; our regulatory regime more rational and effective, and our right-to-work status is a big deal to a lot of companies. However, all these good efforts are for naught if we continue to ignore our crumbling roads. Even the South Carolina Business Roundtable, representing a cross-section of our states economic drivers and led by the SC Chamber of Commerce, has issued a recent paper urging the General Assembly to address this issue. They propose a very modest program clustered around the I-26 corridor, and involving statewide bridge assessment and pavement renewal to be done in the short term. The cost estimate is $6 BILLION. The SCDOT Transportation Infrastructure Taskforce, chaired by Sun City resident and local highway commissioner Craig Forrest, has estimates going out twenty years that are close to $30 billion.

So what are we doing? The governor recently spoke to the issue in her state of the state address and suggested we shuffle around our fiscal obligations and redirect $77 million to roads and bridges. The Speaker has urged that we direct $100 million of new revenue to roads and bridges. Now, $177 million is a lot of money, but not in the context of a generation of neglect to the most essential feature of our economic viability. Is this the “bold, forward-thinking, and bipartisan leadership… that will ensure this critical priority is adequately addressed this year” called for by the SC Business Roundtable? Probably not.

I suggest we take a page from recent Beaufort County history and expand it to the state level. In 2002, our county was faced with $350 million of transportation deficits: afternoon gridlock, failing bridges, and the real possibility of a failed evacuation when the inevitable storm arrives. Facing the facts on the ground, County Council, then led by my colleague Rep. Weston Newton, with vigorous delegation support, passed a penny sales tax for transportation, raised over $150 million, which was leveraged and supplemented with federal dollars to erase the deficit in a matter of years. We voluntarily, via referendum, taxed ourselves to take care of a critical problem.

Could we not voluntarily, via referendum, tax ourselves, perhaps with a fuel tax surcharge geared to an agreed upon plan and timeline? If we could raise a portion of our need, we could leverage and supplement with federal matches to address our road and bridge issue in as little as five years, immediately creating thousands of jobs and opening the doors for thousands more as we become truly the business friendly state we claim we want to be.

If this idea makes sense to you, let me hear from you, along with your reasons and your suggestions. If you think we should do something else, or nothing at all, let me hear from you, along with your thinking. Your judgment will determine whether this ends here or becomes an agenda item at Ways and Means. Think it over and have your say.