South Carolina’s highway department says it will need $42 billion more than it’s expecting to receive over the next three decades in order to meet all of its estimated transportation needs.
The state Department of Transportation (SCDOT) reached the number while creating its statewide multimodal plan through 2040. The plan, required by federal regulations, predicts what South Carolina’s transportation needs will be for roads, rail, aviation, and public transit. It is a more in-depth version of the multimodal plan SCDOT created two years ago to cover the state’s needs through 2030.
Statewide planning chief Mark Pleasant said there are $70 billion in needs, but the current pace of revenue through gas taxes and federal funding would only bring in roughly $27 billion during that same period of time. “We tried to annualize that $42 billion number and break it down,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “And that essentially equates to $1.47 billion a year where we essentially are short in terms of resources to be able to meet the transportation needs throughout the state.”
$1.47 billion per year is a very tall order for a comparatively poor state like South Carolina. SCDOT’s entire allocated budget for the current year was roughly $1.63 billion.
Pleasant said the biggest driver for the enormous gap is a massive backlog in needed highway and bridge maintenance, at more than $43.7 billion for the next 29 years ($1.3 billion per year). Highway expansion is estimated to cost $21.5 billion over that same stretch ($740 million each year).
“We feel like if we can define the need, and make the public aware of what the need is, that’s a starting point for figuring out different ways to address the shortfall long-term,” he said.
SCDOT normally avoids commenting on how to increase its revenue. The report even notes that “no one individual investment scenario optimally addresses the future performance of the state’s transportation system.” It recommends a more narrow focus on preserving the state’s current roads at a high level, at the expense of adding any new lanes or roads in the future and relying on non-federal funds to help residents’ mobility needs.
But some state lawmakers have pointed to the maintenance backlog as evidence that the state should increase its gas tax, which is one of the lowest in the nation at 16 cents per gallon and has not adjusted for inflation since 1987. Sen. Ray Cleary, a Georgetown Republican who has pushed for the increase, told the Greenville News that the higher costs should be expected as infrastructure ages. “If you let your tools get rust on them, it’s more expensive to fix them,” he said.
Bill Ross of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads believes enough public support exists to slightly increase the gas tax, which he calls a “user fee.”
“Surveys and polls we’ve seen indicate the general public is way ahead of the legislative members on this issue,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “Folks are just tired of driving on bad roads and unsafe roads.”
Gov. Nikki Haley has indicated she will oppose any increase to the gas tax. She has previously said lawmakers should ensure all of the money collected from the tax goes directly to SCDOT, rather than diverting some funds to other agencies. The governor said this summer that her staff is working on its own proposal to increase road funding. She said the plan will be released by January. Her Democratic opponent in the race for governor, State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, also opposes a gas tax increase. Sheheen said in July that he would push for $500 million in bonds and millions more in redirected funds to pay for roadwork. Independent candidate Tom Ervin is the only candidate who supports a gas tax increase.