With the Senate poised to take up debate on a massive infrastructure funding bill that would pour $800 million a year into the state’s aging road system, lawmakers on Friday coalesced around their support for the move.
“I think there’s an overwhelming feeling in the Senate that it’s time to do something as far as creating a funding stream,” State Sen. Mike Gambrell, R-Anderson, said during a Greenwood Area Chamber of Commerce-sponsored legislative breakfast. “It’s time to get off the can and do something.”
On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee voted 14-8 in favor of H. 3516 – a sweeping funding package that would bring new money in by raising the gas tax by 12 cents over the next six years and increasing the sales tax cap on vehicles from $300 to $600.
State Sen. Floyd Nicholson, a Greenwood Democrat and member of the finance committee, voted for the measure and plans to do so again on the floor.
“We need substantial funding coming in each year. It’s not just our interstates. It’s our rural highways also, because most accidents happen on rural roads,” he said.
The bill doesn’t have a clear path to Gov. Henry McMaster’s desk, however, with opponents seeking to include governance changes as part of the measure. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, wants to eliminate the state Department of Transportation commission and give full oversight to the governor’s office.
McMaster said he views a gas tax hike as a last resort, but hasn’t threatened a veto. And Democrats such as John Matthews of Bowman say they’ll vote against any road funding bill that cuts income taxes.
South Carolina’s 16-cent-per-gallon gas tax is the second lowest in the nation, and hasn’t been adjusted since 1987.
House members moved the bill out on March 1.
Although he’s against tax increases, Rep. John McCravy, R-Greenwood, said upgrading South Carolina’s 41,000 miles of roads was too important to delay.
“It’s not just a business decision, it’s a moral decision,” he said. “We have to stop people getting hurt on our highways.”
The Senate Finance proposal would tie the state gas tax to inflation starting in 2023 but cap it at 2 percent and prevent it from being higher than taxes in Georgia or North Carolina.
On Friday, Gambrell and Nicholson argued against putting any language in the bill unrelated to road repair.
“I want to see a clean bill with nothing but funding issues,” Gambrell said.
Key to the plan is also increasing the amount of money to County Transportation Commissions from $70 million to $110 million a year.
Eric Dickey, a vice president with Greenwood-based engineering firm Davis & Floyd and member of Fix South Carolina Roads, urged the Senate to act quickly.
“It’s not time to talk about tax reform, DOT reform. It’s time to fix our roads. We are very close to having sustainable funding here in South Carolina, but we need help,” Dickey said on Friday. “You get what you pay for. That’s what it boils down to.”
A former Fix Our Roads chairman, Dickey pointed to the state’s 805 structurally deficient bridges, 975 road-related deaths and $2.6 billion a year in lost productivity due to congestion as examples of why a dedicated funding stream is needed.
“Our road system of over 41,000 miles needs a (repair) program, and to do a program you need sustainable funding over the long haul,” he said.
State Rep. Anne Parks, D-Greewnood, praised her House colleagues for doing their part in addressing South Carolina’s failing roads.
“I think we have a good roads bill,” she said. “I hope the Senate will not mess it up too much.”
Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said the state’s efforts at addressing its billions in unfunded pension liabilities – along with road upgrades and a modernization of publicly owned buildings – require forward thinking.
“All three of those are not small amounts (of money) nor small factors,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.