South Carolina’s transportation commission has approved four road projects across the center of the state that will be funded by federal earmarks, although commissioners admitted they were uncomfortable voting for projects that were not included on the usual priority ranking list.
Staffers with Congressman Jim Clyburn had asked the state Department of Transportation (SCDOT) to repurpose $21.5 million in earmarked funds that came available after their original projects were scrapped or did not spend the full amount.
Commissioners voted 8-1 Thursday in favor of repurposing the money as Clyburn’s office had requested, but some members made it clear they were uncomfortable using the money for projects that were not included on SCDOT’s priority ranking lists. Commissioner Clifton Parker, a trucking company president who is Gov. Nikki Haley’s appointee on the commission, was the lone no vote. Parker said laws passed by the state legislature in 2007 and earlier this year that make it clear that road funding is supposed to be based on impartial rankings. He took issue with the funding going towards “beautification” projects.
“Some of these projects may be good,” he said during Thursday’s meeting. “But if they’re not ranked by (SCDOT) where they ought to be… I don’t understand why we’re not going by the ranking system.”
Commission Chairman Mike Wooten said he was also uncomfortable with funding projects not included in the priority rankings. But he noted Clyburn had secured the earmark money in the first place and said the congressman should be able to recommend where it goes. “This isn’t our money. We didn’t go to Washington, walk the corridors and lobby to get these,” he said. “So it’s not our money, from my perspective.”
The four projects are scattered across the SC Sixth District that Clyburn represents: $11.5 million for improvements along two Sumter streets, $7 million for three additional roads in Orangeburg and $3 million for a road project near the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia. Of those, only the Columbia project is included on an SCDOT priority list.
“(Clyburn) got the money for his district,” Commissioner John Hardee said. “I think whether you’re a Democrat, Republican or independent, you have to listen to input from your congressional delegation.”
Congress has stopped using direct earmarks since Republicans won control of the US House of Representatives in 2011. SCDOT Deputy Secretary Ron Patton noted very few earmark projects remain in South Carolina five years later, with the exception of the stalled Interstate 73 that is proposed to link Myrtle Beach with I-95.
Gov. Haley’s office criticized Clyburn for going outside the SCDOT ranking process to recommend certain projects at the expense of others higher on the list. Spokeswoman Chaney Adams called the move the “perfect example of everything wrong with our roads system.”
“Under no circumstances should this money be spent on any projects other than those prioritized by the Department of Transportation. Period,” Adams said in an emailed statement.
Clyburn himself defended the projects in a statement released by his office. “Today’s action will create jobs, improve infrastructure, enhance public safety and contribute to essential community development and revitalization,” he said. “Many of the communities that will benefit from this action have suffered decades of neglect.”