This column a few months ago addressed how our highway infrastructure is presently funded: almost entirely by the highway fuel tax. Our state highway tax is 16.75 cents a gallon, where it has been stuck since 1989. With gasoline prices at the pump now near a 5-year low, Governor Haley has proposed a plan that would slightly increase this tax at the pump, but make up for it with an decrease in taxes elsewhere – reducing funds to other government services. We can fix our roads and bridges without really paying for it, by reducing funds to schools and other state obligations. And the state legislature is looking at two plans, with various gimmicks such as passing along some costs to the Counties (as if Edgefield County had the funding to maintain more roads than it already does!) and raising the sales tax on vehicles. Only people wealthy enough to buy a new car would have to pay more for our roads, you see. Not you and me, only them.
All of this is silly.
The South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) has estimated that we have $70 billion in maintenance needs over the next 30 years, and current gas taxes and expected federal funds will bring in less than 40% of that. Smoke, mirrors, and gimmicks won’t fix our roads and bridges – it will take money. With the present fiscal stalemate in Washington, we can’t rely on the federal government to fix our state and county roads and bridges – we will need to do it ourselves.
Neighboring Georgia is putting together a plan now, to upgrade their infrastructure through a combination of increased tax support and a state bond issue. Bond issues sound attractive, but they amount to buying it now, and establishing a tax obligation to pay off those bonds later. Although Georgia’s plan certainly looks to be better than what our legislature has proposed so far, it still seems to be illusory: look, it seems to say, we can get our roads fixed and not have to pay for it! At least, we wouldn’t have to pay right now. Really?
In truth, we are in a very good place right now in South Carolina, and right now is the time to get a grip on our infrastructure. The economy is starting to boom. Unemployment is down. Tax revenues are up. Gasoline prices are so low that merely raising them to where they were six months ago, by increasing gasoline taxes, would take a very large bite out of our roads-and-bridges repair backlog. The arguments that “we might imperil our recovery” or “businesses would move elsewhere” just don’t fly; all of us, and especially businesses here, know they would do better if South Carolina roads and bridges were a model of effective state government rather than a model of “penny wise, pound foolish.”
The old folk song “The Arkansas Traveler” always causes a laugh. In it, the fiddler tells the traveler why he doesn’t fix his roof. He can’t fix it when it’s raining, he says, because he would get soaked. And when it stops raining, the roof no longer leaks! That seems to be where we are, in talking about the economy and repairing our state infrastructure. We build up a maintenance backlog during tough economic times, and can’t fix our roads because South Carolina doesn’t have the money. But when the economy is strong and getting stronger, South Carolina can’t fix our roads and bridges then without jeopardizing the recovery.
Without the fiddler, the song is not so funny.
Let’s commit to fixing our roads and bridges now, and paying for it with additional taxes on our very inexpensive gasoline. Maybe we’ll get the roof at least partially fixed, before it rains again.