South Carolina's road-work budget dwindling

News The Greenville News May 19, 2006
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The South Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT), which is already struggling with money problems, will face a 22% drop in revenue beginning next summer, a DOT official recently told highway commissioners, the Greenville News reported.

Commissioners said the agency needs more money that can only come from the legislature, but efforts have failed.

"I think the mindset over there is, 'You're not going to get a damn thing,'" said a frustrated Commissioner Bobby Jones, who said he has repeatedly tried to persuade legislators of the need for more money.

Mo Denny, the agency's chief financial officer, told commissioners the agency expects to get $1 billion at most during the fiscal year that begins in July 2007, down from an expected $1.286 billion for the fiscal year beginning this July.

Commissioner Bob Harrell Sr., whose son is speaker of the House, said the agency needs a plan to sell legislators next year. Commissioners suggested getting a public relations firm to help, the newspaper reported.

"We need a vision," said Harrell, who chair's the board's finance and administration committee. "We need a plan to get out of this mess."

DOT Executive Director Betty Mabry said she intends to share her vision for the agency at the commissioner's next meeting.

"I don't think we have a mess," Mabry said. "We've done a tremendous amount of work. We've hit hard times we've got to get past."

Steve Benjamin, a board member of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, said lawmakers should take action. "I think we should do whatever it takes to be sure we have a competitive business environment here, which means we've got to support our transportation infrastructure," he said.

Flat fuel-tax revenues, lower-than-expected federal highway funding and higher construction prices caused by the increase in petroleum-based materials have contributed to the agency's money woes, officials said.

DOT Chairman Tee Hopper said last month he believes another reason is that the agency overcommitted to road projects. Some lawmakers and officials with the Governor's Office have also been critical of DOT's spending--most recently a $23 million, five-year consultant contract for management services.

They also have noted the past purchase of SUVs for top agency officials and payment to Jones of $90,000 over several years to write letters for Mabry, as examples of questionable spending, the Greenville News reported.

"We don't think it makes sense to give more money to an agency that is accountable to no one," said Joel Sawyer, spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford, "when there are some very legitimate questions about having squandered money in the past."

Sawyer said the fact that some commissioners want to hire a public relations firm to persuade lawmakers to give them more money is "one of the most unbelievable things I've ever heard."

Sen. Larry Martin (R-Pickens) said he has recently been urged by constituents to spend some of this year's $1 billion budget surplus on bridge and road repairs instead of suspending the gas tax for three months, as passed by the House. He said it's going to take pressure from constituents before lawmakers pay attention to DOT problems.

"We have just basically neglected a careful look at DOT's needs," Martin said. "It's basically been sitting over there running on automatic pilot. And that cannot continue if we're going to move this state forward in economic development."

According to Hooper, the agency needs to be able to answer the question, "Why are you where you are" financially?

Mabry said the agency is hurting because it expected more in federal and state revenues. "We're in this position because we built a lot of projects," she said. "And we expected $100 million more in federal money."

She also said the agency needs to educate the public and lawmakers on its budget, only $412 million of which, she said, is from state fuel taxes. About $700 million of the agency's budget comes from federal funds.

"The more we spend, the more they think we have to spend," she said. "It's not that situation."

Officials said road projects span years and paying for them is a complicated process. Denny said the agency is letting some contracts for roadwork, but none that are major because of the cash crunch.

State Highway Engineer Tony Chapman said the only contracts let in recent months have been some local road projects, maintenance work and one bridge.

"We can't delay these projects forever," Denny said. He also said the upcoming budget does not include any contingency for construction price increases or disasters because of the agency's financial situation.

Mabry said possible revenue options include increasing the state's 16-cent-per-gallon gas tax, which has not been raised since 1987, creating a gas sales tax, placing tolls on highways or getting a general fund appropriation for the agency.

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