Road funds pursued in South Carolina

| 1/10/2005

South Carolina state lawmakers are expected to make it a priority in the upcoming legislative session to find funds to fix state highways, which transportation officials say are in a maintenance crisis.

Rep. Robert Harrell Jr., R-Charleston, told The State newspaper he wants to divert existing road-related taxes and fees to a highway maintenance trust fund that would raise about $100 million by 2010.

The money – including driver’s license and vehicle registration fees – now pays for general state activities.

Harrell plans to introduce his proposal as early as this week. Legislators will convene their 2005 session Tuesday, Jan. 11.

A shortage of funds forced the South Carolina Department of Transportation four years ago to stop resurfacing secondary highways. The state has a $560 million annual shortfall for maintenance, the newspaper reported.

Other state officials and business lobbyists have proposed paying for the roads with a fuel tax increase or a new $15-per-axle user fee for all registered vehicles in the state.

The axle fee, offered by the Transportation Commission, reportedly would generate an estimated $90 million to $100 million – enough to cover about two-thirds of the maintenance need.

Reaction by state officials to the fee is mixed. Commission Chair Tee Hooper, who did not vote on the fee, said he is not sure it’s the best way to address the problem.

“There is plenty of need, but I’m not convinced the timing is right,” he told The Greenville News. “I think we have to be sure that we spend what we have appropriately before we can ask for more and that the method of asking is appropriate.”

Currently, the source of transportation funds is almost entirely the state’s 16-cent-a-gallon fuel tax, which is among the lowest in the nation.

Legislation prefiled by State Rep. David Umphlett Jr., R-Moncks Corner, would change that. He has offered a resolution – H3134 – to raise the fuel tax by 6 cents a gallon with revenue designated for road repairs.

Harrell said he wants to try the maintenance trust fund before raising taxes or fees.