March 3, 2015

Winter storm moves out of SC

A state Department of Transportation truck puts down salt brine on highway in York County (Image: SCDOT)

A state Department of Transportation truck puts down salt brine on highway in York County (Image: SCDOT)

Before spring officially arrives in about a month’s time, winter is making one last stand in South Carolina.

A winter ice storm that hit the Upstate and Piedmont is not as severe as last year’s snow and ice storm that knocked out power for nearly a half-million customers in 2014, but Monday night’s winter storm was the worst winter weather South Carolina has seen this season. Cold temperatures and frozen precipitation made travelling conditions dangerous, and plagued most of the state early Tuesday morning leaving nearly 100,000 residents without power.

Power outages spanned all across the state Tuesday morning from Spartanburg to Charleston. As of 11:00 a.m. Tuesday, Duke Energy (which provides power to most of the Upstate) reported 2,064 outages affecting 98,613 customers.  Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative also reports about 8,500 outages in the Upstate. South Carolina Electric and Gas (which serves most of the Midlands and some coastal areas) reported 658 total outages, mostly in Fairfield County.

According to the South Carolina Emergency Management Division, state government offices in 14 of the state’s 46 counties operated on a delayed schedule. Four counties (Anderson, Marlboro, Oconee, and Spartanburg) closed government operations for the day.

The storm is moving out of South Carolina, but the cold weather remains. Since temperatures are expected to drop into the 20s again Tuesday night, forecasters are still warning about icy conditions on many roads overnight.

Jeremy Urso contributed to this report

SC Big Story: House moves on its own gas tax plan

Students dance on the Statehouse steps as part of a "School Choice Week" rally on Tuesday

Students dance on the Statehouse steps as part of a “School Choice Week” rally Tuesday

A roundup of what’s making news in South Carolina state government.

An ad hoc South Carolina House committee says it has come up with several recommended changes to help the state cut into a massive road repair backlog.

But committee chairman State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, cautioned the plan his committee unveiled Tuesday was basically a rough draft. The proposed bill will be introduced on the House floor and still must go through the normal legislative process.

“We want to begin at a starting point… for the infrastructure needs that we all realize are out there,” Simrill said during the meeting. “Realizing that something can’t be accomplished for nothing.”

[Read more…]

Haley says she’ll support gas tax increase, with big caveats

Haley spoke for roughly 39 minutes in her fifth address to the legislature (Image: SCETV)

Haley spoke for roughly 39 minutes in her fifth address to the legislature (Image: SCETV)

Governor Nikki Haley indicated Wednesday a willingness to reverse an earlier pledge not to raise the state’s gas tax, but only if it came with a much larger decrease in income taxes and a restructuring of the state’s transportation agency.

Haley offered her roads plan during her fifth annual State of the State speech Wednesday night. The governor proposed raising South Carolina’s 16-cents per-gallon gas tax, but only if it was included in a “three part package.”

“Let’s increase the gas tax by 10 cents over the next three years and let’s dedicate that money entirely towards improving our roads,” she said. “That will keep our gas tax below both Georgia and North Carolina. And we can do it without harming our economy.”

But her caveat made it clear she would not support the increase unless it also came with a reduction in the current income tax from 7 percent to 5 percent. She also pushed for the elimination of the current South Carolina Transportation Commission, an eight-member board appointed largely by the legislature (with one seat selected by the governor) that approves all road projects in South Carolina.

Haley said the commissioners often focus on getting what is best for their region at the expense of the entire state.

[Read more…]

Charleston legislator to file bill allowing Uber to operate in South Carolina

UberState Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said he’s already working on a bill allowing Uber, the ride sharing service to operate legally in the state and could introduce it this week.

The Public Service Commission issued a cease-and-desist order to Uber on January 15.

In addition to creating jobs for the people of Charleston, Uber has provided a safer way to travel in our city and state,” he said, noting he’s used the service many times. “It’s unconscionable that this basic technology would not be available to residents and visitors.” Stavrinakis said.

Uber launched its ride service in Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Columbia and Greenville last year. The service allows users to request a ride through a smartphone app, which then allows them to agree with a driver on a price, destination, and pick-up time. The commission said the service must stop until a request to provide it is approved. Several other cities nationwide have also issued cease-and-desist orders for Uber.

The company said they plan to appeal and is committed to providing the service to South Carolinians.

Gov. Nikki Haley last Friday called the commission’s order “extremely disappointing.”

The Republican governor can’t tell the commissioners what to do. All are elected by the Legislature. Instead, in a letter to the commissioners, she urged legislators to take up ridesharing this session and create a “permanent home for this option.”

“Restricting our citizens’ rights to options and economic opportunities is massively detrimental to South Carolina,” she wrote. “It is wrong and, simply put, it is not who we are.” Haley said.

Stavrinakis said the hope is to file the bill this week.




Business, transportation leaders push for more money in SC roads

With the state legislative session underway, some business and transportation leaders are making a hard push to get more money into South Carolina roads.

Department of Transportation commissioners say the state must raise the 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax, which has been unchanged for almost 30 years.

Commission Chairman Jim Rozier said the hard fact of the matter has to be on the table. “It calls for a tax increase, calls for a gas tax increase,” he said. “But it’s a user system when you put it on gas. If you don’t use it you don’t pay it.”

A tax increase of any kind is tough to get support for in Republican-dominated South Carolina. Rozier said lawmakers must be willing to break their pledges to reject any tax increase, which he said was made when the state’s roads weren’t crumbling. “You sign something that ties your hands tomorrow; that’s kind of foolish,” Rozier told reporters last week.

Governor Nikki Haley’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes allocating $61.4 million from the current sales tax on cars and trucks to the Department of Transportation for road maintenance. Although the money, which would normally go into the state’s general fund, is far less than DOT’s projected $1.5 billion annual funding shortfall, leaders of two business groups pushing for better transportation infrastructure call it a step in the right direction.

“Every little bit helps,” said Rick Todd, president and CEO of the South Carolina Trucking Association. Redirecting motor vehicle sales tax revenue to the DOT is needed before the state might consider increasing user fees or taxes to keep up and improve the state’s highway system, Todd added.

The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which lists transportation infrastructure along with workforce development top priorities for the General Assembly to tackle this year, applauded Haley for making additional revenue for roads a priority in the executive budget. “It makes a lot of sense to take all of the sales tax revenue generated on vehicles and put it towards maintaining our state’s roads,” Ted Pitts, president and CEO of the chamber, said. “This proposal is a step in the right direction in that it provides additional resources for roads and bridges as well as helping to diversify the revenue streams committed to our state’s infrastructure.” Pitts is Gov. Haley’s former chief of staff.

Haley’s budget proposal sets the administration’s spending priorities. A final budget won’t emerge from the Legislature until the end of the session.

In addition, a special House committee spent the fall looking into the transportation infrastructure issue. The panel plans to submit a bill later this month aimed at fixing some of the problems hampering the S.C. DOT’s efforts to find money for roads.

The department is responsible for operating and maintaining more than 41,000 miles of roads and more than 8,400 bridges, ranking South Carolina the fourth-largest state-owned highway system in the nation according to the Federal Highway Administration.

A good-quality road system is vital for economic development, particularly as the state develops its manufacturing base and the Port of Charleston grows its container business, business leaders said.

The business community is “telling our state leaders we can’t wait any longer on providing adequate funding to maintain and improve our state’s infrastructure,” Pitts said. “Now is the time to come together to develop and implement a comprehensive, sustainable and recurring funding plan to meet our infrastructure needs.”

Todd expressed disappointment in how state leaders are reacting to the state’s transportation needs. “I think business people are extremely frustrated,” Todd said, adding that the business community and electorate are willing to pay more in taxes, user fees, if the money goes toward fixing the roads.