Hope for SC roads

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From the editorial desk

Senate Democrats have gained bipartisan support to borrow $500 million for what they rightly call a "big solution" for tackling South Carolina's massive infrastructure crisis.
Sen. Nikki Setzler's bill, which has 20 co-sponsors, would authorize the state's first bond bill since 1999. His 20 co-sponsors include Republicans John Courson, the Senate's president pro tempore, and Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms.
The bill is one of several welcome signs that state legislators may finally be ready to put some serious money into repairing South Carolina's crumbling transportation system.
This week, the House passed a bill that would redirect roughly $50 million in state car taxes to the transportation agency for each of the next two years and then $103 million each year thereafter. Gov. Nikki Haley has proposed spending most of the $100 million the state expects in surplus revenues this year on infrastructure.
The problem, as Setzler notes, is that combined $203 million is still "a raindrop on Lake Murray" compared to the size of South Carolina's road problems. According to the Department of Transportation, more than 80 percent of the state's primary and secondary roads are rated fair to very poor; 20 percent of bridges are structurally deficient or weight-limited; and traffic congestion is costing the state $400 million a year in economic activity.
Last year, the state Transportation Infrastructure Task Force estimated that bringing all roads and bridges to adequate condition would cost $48.3 billion over the next 20 years – and the state will generate only $19 billion of that money at current funding levels. Where to find the $29 billion more has been the focus of a coalition of business and environmental groups insisting with rare unity that lawmakers quit the annual handwringing and take action.
Which is exactly what Setzler's plan would do, at far less cost to other agencies and needs. He would use $46 million in new recurring dollars to pay back the general obligation bonds and distribute the $500 million by formula to county transportation committees to prioritize – which should help reduce the horse-trading and cronyism that so often dictates project selection by the DOT board.
It would also spare other agencies and priorities equally as important to the state. For example, 20 percent of the $103 million generated by the 5 percent car sales tax currently goes to the Education Improvement Act – one of the major funding mechanisms for public education – and the remainder helps pay for law enforcement and health care.
While it certainly makes sense that taxes generated from car sales be spent on roads, so does Setzler's argument that taking current revenues from the general fund only puts pressure on other state needs. While the House bill directs the general fund to credit "an amount sufficient to offset" the lost sales tax revenues back to the EIA annually, the $83,000 lost to health care and law enforcement won't be.
As long as a gas tax hike is off the table, the bond bill route seems the most politically palatable way to raise the kind of money required to address South Carolina's infrastructure crisis without gutting other state needs.
Legislators are staring down a daunting list of expensive challenges this year in education, health care, reforms associated with security breaches at the Department of Revenue; the list goes on. This is not the year to talk themselves into a stalemate. The one thing they cannot do in 2013 is nothing.