An extensive audit of South Carolina’s Department of Transportation (SCDOT) released Tuesday finds the agency is sorely underfunded and does not properly prioritize road needs.
The Legislative Audit Council’s report states the funding gap often causes repairs to be more expensive because SCDOT is forced to wait far too long to repair aging highways.
“It basically gives a lot of documentation to what we’ve been saying for the last couple of years,” said State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, who requested the comprehensive, 292-page audit last year. Bright said the audit “describes the DOT as a disaster.”
Auditors say conditions have worsened enough in the last decade so that 54 percent of South Carolina’s non-interstate primary routes and roughly half of its secondary routes are now listed in “poor” condition (those percentages were both less than 33 percent just eight years ago). The report pointed to dozens of issues that could be blamed, including a heavy funding reliance on a gas tax that has not increased since 1987 and a continued expansion of the overall roads network despite its mounting maintenance costs and needs.
Lead auditor Brad Hanley said part of the issue is that roughly 25 percent of SCDOT’s funding is rerouted to other entities. That money often goes to various local planning councils or the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which will then use it towards new roads or widening projects. The rest of that redirected funding goes towards debt service to pay off previous bonds (also usually used for new construction).
“Those organizations generally initiate projects that increase road lane miles…. and that money is not spent on preserving what we’ve got,” Hanley told South Carolina Radio Network. “Which kind of exacerbates the problem.”
LAC officials also said the agency also does not always seem to follow a 2007 state law requiring projects be ranked and funded based on a prioritization formula. The audit noted SCDOT uses 157 different project lists using 15 different categories, but does not have clear, transparent criteria on how those lists are ranked. Auditors also said the agency could not provide the methodology it uses to determine some of the criteria, such as crash rates or environmental score.
Hanley warned not being transparent about rankings could give the impression that SCDOT officials are giving preferential treatment to certain projects. “It’s not documented in a way the average citizen — or even a fairly learned person — could understand,” he said. “It’s not transparent and a lot of the information is not on the (SCDOT) website.”
Transportation Secretary Christy Hall agreed with most of the findings, but disagreed with this criticism. In its response, SCDOT noted the ranking processes it uses are “complex,” but insists it is “in compliance with the procedures the Legislature approved for the agency to rank projects.”
“We can talk through and embrace a lot of the items that were identified in the audit and use it as a road map to improve the agency going forward,” Hall told Greenwood radio station WCRS the day before the audit was made public. “There will be some things that we simply have a disagreement of opinion on.”
Another section of the audit says SCDOT’s unique structure creates “confusion and undermines” the agency’s leadership. Specifically, auditors noted South Carolina is the only state in the country that uses both a legislative-appointed commission to vote on road projects, and a Transportation Secretary appointed by the governor to carry out its decisions. Legislators set the current structure as part of a 2007 compromise that made SCDOT a Cabinet agency. The audit does not recommend an alternative, but encourages lawmakers to either have the governor also appoint the commission members or have the commissioners choose the Transportation Secretary.
Hall strongly agreed with those findings. “The (audit) itself noted the confusion over the simple question of who is in charge at the agency,” she wrote in the agency’s response. “Without that critical issue resolved, it will be nearly impossible to set clear priorities, instill effective accountability and correctly answer the question of where the buck stops for the organization.”
Perhaps perfectly illustrating the audit’s concerns, members of the Transportation Commission released their own statement. “The Commission agrees that the General Assembly should provide clarity to the current structure. Further, the Commission believes the most effective structure is one where the Commission sets policy and direction and also assumes the responsibility for employing the Secretary of Transportation. This scenario is the case with a vast majority of boards.”