Why don’t more counties control local road funding?
Despite the gas-tax-hike having passed in 2017, an alarming number of South Carolina’s roads and bridges are still crumbling. As bad as things are for state roads and highways, locally managed roads are sometimes in the worst condition, as they receive far less attention than big and costly transportation projects.
As lawmakers gear up for a new road funding bill heading into next year, it is crucial to emphasize that no amount of money can fix the road system if it isn’t being spent by the right people.
Here’s a look at the local road funding picture, and how it can be improved.
Who controls local road funding?
Transportation projects in South Carolina are primarily funded through a tax on gasoline, which will account for an extra 28 cents per gallon by next summer. A portion of these funds (called “C” funds) are used at the discretion of county transportation committees (CTCs) to complete local road projects, including paving, reconstruction, bridge repair, and even the maintenance of traffic and street signs.
Proper use of these funds is crucial to ensuring a safe driving experience for South Carolinians, and to minimize the damage caused by potholes and other road obstacles. In the words of the S.C. Department of Transportation:
“Financial resources for transportation projects are precious as the needs far exceed the available funding. As such, the CTCs have a considerable responsibility to determine where best to place the limited funds for transportation improvements in their communities.”
Despite being what is obviously a local matter, CTC membership is often not decided by a county’s local government. Instead, most CTC appointments are made by groups of lawmakers representing each county, called legislative delegations. According to the most recently available information per SCDOT, delegations control appointments in 35 of the state’s 46 counties.
Here are the only counties where CTCs are locally controlled:
- Abbeville – County council serves as CTC
- Allendale – County council appoints CTC
- Barnwell – County council appoints CTC
- Beaufort – County council appoints CTC
- Berkeley – County council appoints CTC
- Chester – County council serves as CTC
- Clarendon – County council serves as CTC
- Dorchester – County council appoints CTC
- Jasper – County council serves as CTC
- Lexington – County council serves as CTC
- York – County council serves as CTC
Why are some CTCs controlled by delegations, while others by local government? Because, according to state law, delegations can give up their control through a local resolution, which are subject to far less scrutiny than normal legislation and rarely challenged when supported by lawmakers from that region. Put simply, delegations can relinquish this power at any point during the legislative session, and some already have.
Local matters should be decided by local officials
It is certainly not the job of state legislators to control local transportation matters. Lawmakers, specifically groups of delegations, already have final say over a majority of seats on the SCDOT Commission, which develops the entire state transportation plan.
The question of how to spend local road funding should be left to local officials. County council members are elected to set local government policy, and community transportation decisions fall precisely within this role.
Another issue is that, according to state law, nothing prevents delegations from making project recommendations to the transportation committees. This, coupled with the fact most CTC members owe their jobs to legislative delegations, raises serious conflict of interest and fairness questions, and suggests that delegations have far greater influence over road projects than your average citizen.
It is true that in certain counties, CTCs allow SCDOT to administer local road funds on their behalf. Whether this is the best method for appropriating funds is up for debate; however, the decision to offload this responsibility should ultimately be made by CTCs under the supervision of its local government, not a group of lawmakers.