Why S.C. DOT Still Needs Reform – Badly

● The S.C. Department of Transportation is an unaccountable mess.
● Act 114, the 2007 “reform,” improved virtually nothing.
● What little Act 114 did improve may soon be repealed.

Some lawmakers and Department of Transportation (DOT) leaders are fond of saying there’s no problem with management of DOT. There’s barely an ounce of waste at DOT or a dollar of DOT spending that hasn’t been properly prioritized. The main problem, as these leaders see it, is stingy lawmakers who don’t want to appropriate more money to the agency.

Other lawmakers – and the Policy Council – contend that the agency should be restructured before asking taxpayers for more money. The counterpoint to that argument? That DOT was “reformed” back in 2007, with Act 114. That reform hasn’t prevented the supposed “$1.5 billion” funding shortfall, it’s claimed, so why would further reform efforts help now?

Here’s the truth, though: DOT was not reformed in 2007. The agency is just as much of an unaccountable bungle as it was in 2006.

The “major reforms” enacted by Act 114 were these: 1) allowing the governor to appoint a Secretary to be the nominal head of the agency, and 2) requiring the eight member DOT commission to consider a number of enumerated priorities when creating the statewide transportation improvement program. Both of these reforms sound good on the surface, but that’s all they are, surface level reforms.

Reforming DOT leadership

The agency’s structure is a unaccountable mess controlled largely by a few legislative leaders. The Secretary of Transportation is a mostly administrative position tasked with monitoring the day to day activities of the DOT, and overseeing the implementation of the transportation plan created by the DOT Commission. While the Secretary is legally empowered to approve emergency repairs and routine maintenance (chip seal of existing roads, pavement marking, installation of guard rails, etc.), the largest and most significant projects and expenditures – the ones included in the state transportation plan anyway – are all controlled by the DOT commission.

This division of powers is important because the Secretary of Transportation is the only DOT leader who is accountable to the entire electorate via the governor. The members of the DOT commission, by contrast, with the exception of one member appointed by the governor, are elected by the state legislative delegations of South Carolina’s seven federal congressional districts. The commission selection process ensures there is no one individual, or even small group of individuals, that citizens can directly hold responsible for the actions of the commission. Allowing the governor to appoint a Secretary to oversee day to day operations, then, established no real public accountability.

Regardless of the real significance of the governor’s new appointment power, lawmakers considered it too much of a concession to make it permanent law. Just before Act 114 was passed, some lawmakers inserted a provision into the bill that rescinded the governor’s power to appoint the Transportation Secretary as of July 1, 2015. This provision appears nowhere in the state code. It’s unclear exactly how a state law can be permanently repealed by language that does not itself appear in the state code, but we can expect some lawmakers to treat this uncodified provision just as if it were in the code. Act 114 itself, then, may well ensure the loss of the one DOT leader currently accountable to the public.

And as if all this weren’t enough, Act 114 also created a new law that concentrated power over the DOT Commission into the hands of a few legislative leaders. The 2007 law established the ten-member Joint Transportation Review Committee (JTRC). The JTRC wields tremendous power over the DOT Commission. Before any candidate is eligible for election to the DOT commission, he or she must be screened and approved by the ten-member JTRC. And who controls the JTRC? By state law, six of the ten commissioners are chosen by the current House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tempore. (House Speaker Jay Lucas gets three appointments, and Sen. Hugh Leatherman gets three appointments – two by virtue of being President Pro Tempore, and one by virtue of being chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.) Since Act 114 was signed into law, two lawmakers have effectively had the final say on whether any individual is even eligible to serve on the DOT Commission.

That’s neither accountability nor reform.

DOT priorities

It could be argued, however, that even if the DOT Commission isn’t accountable to the public, Act 114 at least forced the Commission to abide by priorities when including projects in the state transportation plan. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t force the Commission to abide by priorities at all, but merely to “consider” those priorities. Yes, the DOT commission must “consider” several factors when deciding what projects to finance (and one of those factors is potential for economic development – a term that’s become notorious for meaning almost anything), but the decision ultimately rests with the Commission. The DOT is even tasked with creating its own regulations for implementing the project priority considerations required by state law.

There is no reason to believe Act 114 priority requirements ensure transportation dollars are put to their objective best uses, or that they restrict the DOT Commission’s ability to fund the projects its members deem most desirable.

The limitations of priority considerations are evidenced by the fact that the DOT has in recent years spent roughly three times as much on capital outlays as it has on maintenance and services.

Conclusion

To claim that transportation reform has been tried and failed is disingenuous. Lawmakers did pass a bill in 2007 that made some changes at DOT, but it was hardly an effort an unbiased observer would call reform. To make matters worse, the one tangible (if minor) reform enacted by Act 114 – the governor’s appointment of the Transportation Secretary – may soon be phased out.

The fiscal year 2016 state budget just passed by the House totaled $26 billion. And every year the state budget contains hundreds of millions of dollars that could be better spent on road maintenance and repair. To claim the state lacks the revenue to maintain state roads is laughable. What South Carolina lacks, rather, is accountable transportation authorities who consistently prioritize needed maintenance throughout the state over unnecessary expansions in a few politically influential counties.

A long term fix for South Carolina roads will require real reform that cuts waste and promotes accountability. Any tax increase in the name of road repair will only be a band aid that fails to address the root problems with South Carolina roads.

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