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As session nears end, lawmakers working on $4 billion roads package

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Lawmakers are pitching a $4 billion plan laid out over 10 years as a good starting place to start filling in the $35 billion pothole of South Carolina’s roads.

With about three weeks left in the legislative session, state lawmakers representing Berkeley County gave updates on pending bills and answered questions at a Berkeley Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week. Roads dominated the discussion.

“Clearly, roads is the single most important issue facing South Carolina for the next 50 years, and we have come — despite what it may seem in the press — we actually have come a long way in this legislative session on roads,” said Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville.

Bennett said the bill that left the Senate and is going through the S.C. House isn’t a perfect piece of legislation or a solution for the next half century, but it’s better than where the state was six months ago, including changes at the S.C. Department of Transportation.

“We have audited the DOT. We have reformed the DOT. We have reformed the governance of the State Infrastructure Bank,” Bennett said. “We have provided a couple of different funding mechanisms.”

Bennett, like many other lawmakers, emphasized that this was a starting point, and he said he was committed to tackling the problem again next session to find a permanent solution.

“Until we do that, we’re always going to be kind of playing behind the eight ball,” he said. “It’s been generations getting to this point. It’s going be generations to get to a fix for our roads, but we’ve got to start that now."

Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, said the state’s budget hasn’t been completed, but he highlighted several items of interest to the Lowcountry, such as $10 million to go toward completion of an aeronautics center at Trident Technical College.

Campbell, who also serves as CEO of the Charleston County Aviation Authority, outlined how the $4 billion for roads would be used.

“We were able to find money to fix the roads, at least begin fixing the roads, and we didn’t raise your taxes,” Campbell said. “We’ve come up with a way to put $4 billion — $4 billion — into roads over the next 10 years through bonding issues. And we have a way to pay for those because we have a recurring source of funding to pay for that.”

Campbell said that under the proposal, $2 billion will be used for widening and increasing interstate capacity on interstates 26 and 526. None of the money is designated for the completion of Interstate 526.

He said $700 million has been designated to improve the nearly 800 structurally deficient bridges over 10 years.

An additional $800 million will be used for the S.C. DOT to begin paving nonscheduled roads where roads are worn out.

Sen. John W. Matthews Jr., D-Columbia, said he supported a gas tax increase to fix roads because he thinks state lawmakers can’t rely on what he called a patchwork of fixes that avoids the need for a sustainable stream of revenue. He said roads are a 10-year proposition but agreed that the proposed roads plan was a good start.

“I think we made a great step toward fixing the roads this year, but the total need is $35 billion,” he said. “The only way you’re going to fix your roads on a long-term basis is to create a stable revenue source and predictable.”

Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.

Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.

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