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House members critical of DOT's maintenance work

The agency has said it needs an additional $1.5 billion yearly over 20 years just to bring roads to good conditions. A law passed last year could generate up to $1 billion over a decade for roadwork, through a combination of state and federal money plus borrowing.

By SEANNA ADCOX
The Associated Press

1/22/2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Legislators said Tuesday the South Carolina Department of Transportation needs to do a better job repairing potholes and responding to other constituent complaints to prove it can spend any extra allotment correctly.

Agency Director Robert St. Onge encouraged a House budget-writing subcommittee to put more money toward fixing the state's roads.

The agency has said it needs an additional $1.5 billion yearly over 20 years just to bring roads to good conditions. A law passed last year could generate up to $1 billion over a decade for roadwork, through a combination of state and federal money plus borrowing.

St. Onge called it a step toward making roads and bridges safer and reducing congestion, adding "I encourage you to do it again."

But House members said the agency is doing a poor job with basic maintenance such as potholes, signage, trash and unmowed grass along roadways, and untrimmed crepe myrtles in medians.

"I want to help you, but you've got to help yourself," said Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, noting Interstate 20 in his district is drivers' entrance to the state. "I hope you find a book of common sense."

St. Onge said his agency is trying the meet the state's needs with a limited budget. South Carolina's highway system is among the nation's largest, while maintenance of it is funded by a gas tax that's among the nation's lowest.

"We need additional resources to take care of the roads and highways to the way people want," he said. "We can't make this all turn around and look pretty unless we have resources to get it done."

Legislators said the agency hurts itself by not responding well to their calls about constituents' biggest complaints.

"House members say they call over and are not treated like a legislator," said Rep. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville. "The people you talk to, they think they're God. They're not God. DOT's got to wake up in some areas."

A restructuring law passed in 2007 was intended to remove legislators' influence over the projects DOT chose to fund. Smith agreed that the Legislature can blame itself for lawmakers' calls not generating the response they want. Still, Hixon said, DOT should take more seriously requests coming from the people who approve the agency's budget.

He suggested the state disperse extra money for roads through counties, so local officials can make the decisions.

"They know the problems. They're traveling those roads every day," Hixon said.

House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White said he plans to revisit the 2007 law next year to fix what's not working. He said he believes there can be better communication between the agency and lawmakers without affecting which projects make the cut.

"We can have a nice blend," said White, R-Anderson.

In South Carolina, roadwork is overwhelmingly funded through federal matches and the state's 16-cents-per-gallon fuel tax, which hasn't changed since 1987. The state budget for this fiscal year includes $41 million for maintenance on secondary roads. The agency also expects to get $50 million over the next two years for bridge repair. Of the state's nearly 8,400 bridges, at least seven are closed and 420 have weight restrictions for crossing.

Gov. Nikki Haley has promised to veto any bill that increases the fuel tax. She instead has asked legislators to fund the state's road needs through money not yet projected for state coffers. The state's economic advisers usually increase their revenue estimates for the upcoming fiscal year between the start of session and the spring — what Haley calls the "money tree." If legislators put all of that money toward roadwork every year, that could generate an additional $1 billion over the next decade, she said.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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