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Pothole Politics

Anyone who bounced over a pothole during their commute this past week understands that our roads are in need of serious repair. We do not need to rely upon the multitude of newspaper reports jammed with statistics stating this fact. Common sense and our wheel alignment bill tell us so.

For those not convinced by the pothole effect, consider the bevy of maintenance reports from the South Carolina Department of Transportation. They say that the lack of proper funding has prevented them from expanding interstates, resurfacing roads and repairing bridges as needed.

No one seriously claims that they are wrong. In fact, citizens call their legislators daily to complain about the roads. Groups representing business, tourism, and agriculture have defined infrastructure improvement as our most critical core need. They remind us that the SCDOT needs a serious revenue infusion to meet our tourism, Charleston port, Greer inland port, manufacturing, just-in-time shipping and everyday travel requirements.

Yet, in spite of the pothole effect, the SCDOT warnings, the congestion, the decrease in highway safety and the desperate cries from business stakeholders across the state, our elected officials in Columbia have not taken a serious look at the SCDOT’s primary revenue source: the fuel user fee – also known as the “gas tax.”

The existing fuel user fee was last raised in 1987. The 3 cent per gallon increase was signed into law by Carroll Campbell, the Republican Governor from Greenville who brought BMW to the Upstate and turned the Governor’s office into a business recruitment powerhouse. He and a General Assembly controlled by the Democrats understood that investing in our infrastructure was necessary for the future prosperity that we enjoy today.

Raising the fuel user fee required political courage from Gov. Campbell. In 1986, he had campaigned that he would not support an increase saying that it would be detrimental to our economy. Once elected, he realized the importance of the issue to our future economic growth. After a hard legislative battle with members of his own party who opposed any increase and Democrats who wanted more, a prudent compromise was agreed upon.

Over the years, inflation and high efficiency vehicles eliminated the positive effect of Gov. Campbell’s fee increase. Today, a prudent solution would be to adjust the current base user fee by the average inflation increase over the last several years. The new base would then be linked to the Consumer Price Index to adjust yearly at a capped rate. This small change would generate enough new revenue to relieve the pressure to our infrastructure system while avoiding a massive increase that would be detrimental to our citizens. The solution would also link the increasing number of hybrid vehicles to the formula.

Currently, Speaker Bobby Harrell has introduced legislation to redirect sales tax revenue from car sales to the SCDOT. Gov. Nikki Haley has requested that one-time revenue increases from unexpected growth be used for bridge repair. While these alternative revenue sources offer necessary short term relief, they do not offer significant growth opportunities or sustainability. They merely patch things together until . . . what?

Some have suggested financing road repair through bonds. This would shift costs to future generations. Others want pennies to flow from county sales tax initiatives. We could require each driver to carry a bag of asphalt patch along with a shovel in their trunk and have a “patch as you drive” policy, but we already have a transportation department to do just that. We just need to give them the funds to do their job.

South Carolinians have given elected officials of both parties the privilege to govern our state. Those of us who value that trust should remember a lesson from Gov. Campbell. Making campaign promises requires little courage; governing once elected requires much.