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House approves $415 million for roads

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The S.C. House of Representatives has amended the House Ways and Means budget proposal to include an additional $415 million in state funding for road infrastructure improvement.

The amendments were made as the House debated the 2016-17 budget.

The money is appropriated to the S.C. Department of Transportation. Of the total, $365 million is earmarked for the State Highway Fund while the remaining $50 million is planned for the various county transportation committees.

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The county allocation increases came in the form of money for counties, as well as municipalities, to make improvements to less-traveled roads maintained locally. The amendments and budget also allow for $49 million to cover road repairs after the state’s severe flooding in October.

“Over the past three years, the House has set aside over $1 billion in additional general fund revenue for road repair,” House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, said in a statement. “This year we did not change course and once again prioritized infrastructure funding by appropriating an additional $415 million to fix our roads.”

Other proposals have included raising the state’s motor fuel user fee, commonly referred to as the gas tax, by 10 cents per gallon over five years; but Senate leaders rejected that House proposal and came up with a plan to dedicate $400 million in recurring state general fund dollars to fix roads. Another component of the Senate bill gave the governor the power to appoint members of the state’s highway commission.

Although the House approved the additional revenue, representatives did not make the revenue recurring. The House plan also keeps the gas tax level at its current 16.75 cents per gallon, the third-lowest in the country. According to reports, the House will not take up any other changes proposed by the Senate until after the budget clears the House chamber.

“While some state-elected officials doubted the House’s commitment to vastly increase funding for S.C. roads, I didn’t,” House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville, said in a statement. “I know how dedicated our caucus is to improving S.C. roads and never doubted that they would surpass all expectations when the time came to act.”

The S.C. Trucking Association has been a vocal advocate of the state’s increasing the gas tax in order to pay for permanent road improvement. Rick Todd, CEO of the association, said the Senate’s plan was “a virtual half-full can kick down the road.” He said there still has to be recurring money to make the necessary improvements to the state’s roadways.

“I do believe that most members of the General Assembly do understand that the fuel tax will have to be part of the answer, because the general public is not going to be able to shoulder the entire burden,” Todd said.

The S.C. Chamber of Commerce has advocated for $600 million in recurring road infrastructure funding; chamber President Ted Pitts said the House budget is “better than nothing.”

“The business community will continue to push for a long-term solution,” Pitts said in a statement, adding that there is still time during this legislative session “through permanent legislation, to provide a long-term sustainable solution.”

Todd said his organization sent a letter to House leadership asking members for “as much money as they could allow” and for funding to be “as recurring as possible,” but he said he recognized the political climate including a $1.2 billion surplus and Gov. Nikki Haley’s mandate that she will veto any gas tax increase that does not come with a subsequent income tax decrease.

For now, Todd said, the status of S.C. roads may improve only marginally, without recurring funding.

“There will be no major improvements, I don’t think, if this is how they are going to go about doing it,” Todd said.

Reach Matthew Clark at 864-235-5677, ext. 107, or @matthewclark76 on Twitter.

Reach Matthew Clark at 864-720-1222.

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