Pointless DoT Restructuring?

With all of Columbia abuzz about government restructuring, H.4625 has passed through the House Judicial Committee without incident. As the Department of Transportation’s budget woes have come to light, state lawmakers have decided that the time has come to fix the Department’s structure of governance (though no move has been made so far to actually address the Department’s funding). H.4625 completely eliminates the state Transportation Commission and creates a Secretary of Transportation in the executive branch. It also requires the Department of Transportation to submit an itemized budget annually to the General Assembly, from which lawmakers can fund or defund specific line items in the general appropriations act.

Another transportation restructuring bill – with key differences – has been filed in the Senate, S.1162. Instead of abolishing it, this bill replaces the Transportation Commission with a “Joint Transportation Review” committee made up of select legislators, and requires the development of a long-term Statewide Transportation Plan to guide the Department’s selection of projects. The new Joint Transportation Review Committee would be charged with “advising” the Secretary of Transportation about what the Statewide Transportation Plan should include.

This effectively ignores the whole reason for restructuring DoT in the first place – namely that a more robust, cabinet-level position of Secretary would allow the Department some autonomy from regional lawmakers seeking state funds for political reasons. Legislative “advice” and “review” over project priorities should be viewed with some real suspicion.

But the Joint Transportation Review Committee isn’t the only committee this bill would create. A second legislative committee, the Review and Oversight Committee, would be granted the ability to decide whether or not the governor’s appointed Secretary of Transportation is qualified for his or her position: hardly a leap forward for executive-legislative separation of powers, as we’ve repeatedly called for in our other restructuring research.

One common complaint about the structure of the Department of Transportation is that it breeds parochial infighting over earmarks and other regional spending. The state is split into six regional transportation districts, and a commissioner for that district is elected from each (the seventh is appointed to serve as an at-large representative). Structured this way, it’s clear where the incentives of these commissioners lie: in bringing home as much state money for their own district as possible. Some transportation districts are naturally better than others at doing so, which means “priority” projects are just as often the result of crack negotiating skills as they are true priority. Of course, one could argue that regional representation is vital to state transportation expenditures, since construction projects (or a lack thereof) have powerful effects on local economies. It should be clear by now, however, that a greater balance of interests – and a different method of funding, as we’ve discussed in past research – would be required to allow state priorities to take equal weight.

Other state transportation departments are structured similarly to South Carolina’s, though the differences that do exist are telling. In Georgia, the Department of Transportation is governed by a thirteen-member board elected from congressional districts. This board has the authority to appoint the transportation commissioner directly, cutting the executive branch largely out of the process. North Carolina has a Secretary of Transportation appointed by the governor, and the state’s DoT is governed by a board of nineteen other appointees, representing transportation districts or at-large regions similar to South Carolina’s. Florida has a Secretary of Transportation and a commission, though Florida’s commission is “prohibited from involvement in day-to-day operations” and “may not subordinate state needs to those of any particular area.” (How this is enforced is unclear.)

Vague language prohibiting involvement isn’t a smart way to balance out parochial infighting among regions and counties; nor is replacing the Transportation Commission with a legislative body, as lawmakers in the Senate have predictably proposed. The legislature, too, is a body whose members hold loyalty to particular districts: if the General Assembly can fund or defund specific Transportation projects at will, the free-for-all will merely shift from the Transportation Commission to the chambers. Deals will be made, powerful legislators will bring home pork for their districts while other districts go untended, and South Carolina will continue to have the most dismally maintained roads in the nation.

There has been no single solution so far that will end the “problem” of regional favoritism, but making the Department of Transportation a full cabinet agency is a good first step. The Secretary of Transportation and whatever other representatives the executive branch appoints would have full responsibility for DoT’s performance during their tenure. If things aren’t going well, the governor can appoint different representatives or set different priorities for the agency. This isn’t a fix-all, however: a secretary can go awry just as easily as a commission, but it’s far easier to hold a secretary (and the governor who appointed him) accountable for such mistakes.

Certain legislators have alternately suggested that the Transportation Commission simply needs more commissioners to function better: comparable states, as above, have three times as many commissioners, which allows each one to take a more active role in representing a district of a manageable size. Considering the vast amount of comparative road mileage apportioned to the state government directly (South Carolina possesses the 4th highest percentage in the country), it certainly seems reasonable to consider staffing an appropriately sized advisory body.

Restructuring the Department of Transportation, done properly, could cut down on wasteful earmarks, administrative costs, and regionally focused projects that don’t make sense for the entire state. Done poorly, it could result in an even greater ability for certain legislators to select favored projects for funding, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

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