The welfare lane

Article January 04, 2002
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If you find a dollar on the sidewalk in South Carolina,
notify the department of transportation immediately.

Any kind of funding would help a region in desperate need of
a raise in allowance. The state finished slightly below revenues for the
previous fiscal year, forcing officials to review the South Carolina
DOT’s highway policy and how it compares to other states.

“Our short-term strategy is to hold on for dear life
and hope for an adjustment in 2003 for some additional state money,” Mike
Covington, director of government affairs for SCDOT, told ROADS & BRIDGES.

Funds have hit rock bottom nationwide. In a report released
in early November, the National Council of State Legislatures found 44 states
where revenues were less than predicted and 28 that have cut spending or are
considering such a move. Fourteen unions have frozen hiring, set limits on
employee travel expenses or canceled capital projects.

The gas tax has stalled growth in South Carolina. According
to Covington, 95% of the state’s highway funding comes from the
pump—and it’s been 14 years since the last adjustment.

“We’ve only experienced an annual fuel tax
growth of 2%, and the only way to put more fuel tax money is to put more cars
out on the road,” he said.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century has been
a savior and a stumbling block. When the funding formula was improved for donor
states South Carolina received the biggest percentage increase of federal
funding in the nation. However, with the bonus came a 100% increase in the
requirement for state matching dollars.

“TEA-21 is allowing us to pursue a very aggressive
construction program on primary and interstate routes, which is sorely
needed,” said Covington. “We have made a business decision not to
turn down any kind of federal money.”

But the acceptance fee has forced South Carolina to set zero
dollars aside for the resurfacing of secondary roads. A hard blow considering
65% of the roads are state maintained.

“We have an awful lot of roads in our state system
that do not qualify for federal funding, and what has happened is we’ve
had to take money from the maintenance of the secondary roads, which were
already at a minimum, and shift it over to our federal program so we can match
federal money,” said Covington. “Our biggest safety concerns lie in
our secondary roads.”

In 2002, South Carolina plans to continue its aggressive
construction program on interstates and primary routes, but all other funding
could be cut even more.

“We have asked the legislature for additional funding.
Even if it’s only stop-gap funding, if they can provide enough so that we
can get back in the resurfacing business on the secondary roads we would be on
the right track,” said Covington.

The Colorado DOT is trying to patch a 20% cut in budget. The
agency did not receive approximately $170 million in state transportation
funding it was expecting in 2001. As a result, six major projects have been
deferred until the next fiscal year.

“A portion of our budget comes from the general fund
and it’s a transfer of a portion of the sales tax, and those funds simply
did not materialize,” CDOT spokesman Dan Hopkins told Roads &
Bridges. Hopkins blames the cold economy and the events of Sept. 11 for the
setback. “The transportation commission does not have to turn in its
final budget until April, so we’ll be working with the legislature to see
what kind of fiscal projections come about.”

Colorado’s hardship will not slow down any project
currently under contract, including the massive T-REX. However, enhancements
planned for the I-25/I-225 overhaul have been canceled.

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