Business leaders from across the state said that after years of frustration, they are cautiously optimistic the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place when it comes to fixing South Carolina’s roadways.
A group met with members of the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads at their annual meeting Monday in Columbia. Board member Rick Todd moderated the discussion, which focused on the importance of a strong infrastructure to the state’s economy.
John Durst, president of S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the leaders were united in the message, “It’s time.”
Durst said tourism is a $19 billion-a-year industry for South Carolina, and 84% of tourists drive to their destinations.
John Lummus, president of the Upstate SC Alliance, said when he talks to an economic development prospect, infrastructure and roads are always in the top three of importance.
“If you don’t have a good road, four-lane highway or interstate, they are not even going to consider your locale,” Lummus said.
Marty McKee, chairman of Associated General Contractors of the Carolinas, said his group is for any plan that will get money moving toward fixing the roads. He emphasized that he hopes any plan that is enacted is indexed.
“We need to see some sustainability,” McKee said.
Most of the panel members say they think the Legislature’s plan to gradually increase the gas tax by 10 cents over the next five years will be the eventual conclusion to getting the necessary funds.
Harry Ott, president of S.C. Farm Bureau, reminisced about his time spent in the General Assembly and how he felt about possible tax increases.
“I wouldn’t have voted for a tax increase,” Ott said, who represented Calhoun County in the House of Representatives. “But now, I’m all in. We use these roads every day, and our group supports the increase.”
Ott made sure to point out that he would like to see a fair share of the funds diverted to rural roads and bridges.
“We may not get a lot of traffic on these roads, but it is important for the trucks coming in and out carrying produce and other materials around the state,” he said.
Cam Crawford, president and CEO of the S.C. Forestry Association, echoed Ott’s statements.
“Our group carries 1 million truckloads of logs every year and generates $20 billion in industry,” Crawford said. “Agribusiness accounts for $42-$45 billion a year, and most deal with the rural areas of the state.”
Todd, president and CEO of the S.C. Trucking Association, says he is cautiously optimistic that change is coming and that he feels the General Assembly is ready to act.
“The General Assembly wants to be perceived as doing something,” Todd said. “They know that fixing our roads is critically important to the economy and job growth. Politically, it looks as if the stars are lining up,” Todd said. “We were privy to the polls that came out before the primary, and they show the No. 1 concern on voters' minds is the road system. We have lower gas prices now, some even lower than what we see in our neighboring states.”
When the panel members were asked what they would say to Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, who will succeed Gov. Nikki Haley if the U.S. Senate approves her appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, McKee said McMaster would focus on legacy.
“All governors want to be known for something,” McKee said, adding that he would tell McMaster “that he could be the governor that oversaw the fixing of the roads in South Carolina.”
Todd said he is encouraged by what the panel said.
“This is a group that is on the same page,” Todd said. “They want action done and are willing to make fixing our roads a top priority.”