State Senator Larry Grooms, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, told a West Ashley Republican group this week at Easterby’s restaurant that the $420 Million allocated for the completion of I-526 cannot be unilaterally withdrawn by the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank. He said the project, which would connect West Ashley to Johns Island and James Island, will move forward when Charleston County can identify the source of its obligated $300 Million in matching funds.
In February, the Charleston Area Transportation System Policy Committee (CHATS), which represents Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, unanimously voted to support the project, declaring that it has more than $200 Million in bonding authority from federal Guideshares funds. Several weeks later, Charleston County Council committed $150 Million in funding for I-526 but failed to specify the source of funding. County voters approved a $2.1 Billion dollar transportation sales tax increase in November, which could be used for I-526.
Grooms, who represents parts of Mt. Pleasant, Daniel Island and eastern Berkeley County, also provided an update on the the roads funding situation. The Senate is deliberating legislation (H-3516) to increase the tax on gasoline and diesel fuel by 12 cents per gallon over six years, as well as increasing the sales tax cap on vehicles and issuing a fee on hybrid and electric car owners. The measure failed to get moved to the top of the Senate calendar on a 23-18 vote (28 votes were needed for passage). Grooms was among the 18 Republicans who voted against it.
For Republicans who oppose the current fuels tax bill, there are several major points of contention. Some, like Grooms, want the bill to contain a corresponding reduction in the state’s personal income tax. Others, like Majority Leader Shane Massey, want to see the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) restructured. Massey has sponsored legislation (S-301) to remove the seven Congressional District Highway Commissioners and give the Governor complete administrative control over the highway system. Charleston Senator Sandy Senn wants to see a change in the highway funding formula to increase money going to populous counties, which have the most heavy road usage.
SCDOT funding has increased from $1.1 Billion in 2008-9 to $1.8 Billion in the current fiscal year. A Legislative Audit Council report in 2016 indicated that SCDOT spending did not keep pace with inflation from 2006 to 2015. It also criticized the agency’s project prioritization system and noted that it spent $182 Million on metropolitan planning in 2015, more than five times the amount required by the federal government.
Governor Henry McMaster has vowed to veto any increase in the state’s current 16.75 cents per gallon fuels tax. The House previously passed a 10 cents per gallon increase by a veto-proof 97-18 margin. In the Senate, which has two open seats, 15 votes would be needed to sustain a veto. Recent polling by the Trafalgar Group, which accurately polled nearly every state in the 2016 Presidential election, revealed that only 21% of registered voters favor a fuels tax increase. Read the survey here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2Hwy_ovLLLvYnotWjVIMzZKd0U/view