Road-naming bills: Political favors for politicians

Ravenel bridge

Last September, the Department of Transportation (DOT) Commission voted to rename the “John N. Hardee Expressway” in Columbia to the “Columbia Airport Expressway” following Hardee’s guilty plea to a federal evidence-tampering charge and subsequent arrest in a prostitution sting.

This is not the first time a South Carolina politician has faced criminal charges after having a road or public building named in their honor, yet South Carolina lawmakers persist in bringing legislation to name roads after public officials who are still living and in some cases, still in office.

Case in point: later this week, a House committee will consider two competing resolutions: H.5026, which would name the I-85/I-385 interchange in Greenville after former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, and H.5009, which would name that interchange after sitting President Donald J. Trump.

There are three reasons this ill-advised practice serves political interests rather than those of South Carolina citizens.   
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1.    Road-naming resolutions create a cost to taxpayers that cuts into road-repair funds.

Over the years, South Carolina taxpayers have spent tens of thousands of dollars on road-naming signs – funds which by law come from local gas-tax revenues otherwise designated for local road projects.

State law requires that the DOT be reimbursed for up to $500 per road-naming project out of the “C” funds (each county’s share of gas-tax revenue), with the approval of the county legislative delegation.

The Nerve reported in 2011 that over the previous five years, at least $60,000 went to road-naming signs, and at least 13 roadways or structures were named after current or former lawmakers. A followup story in 2014 reported that 57 road-naming resolutions had been adopted during the 2012 and 2013 legislative sessions, totaling $28,500 of local gas-tax dollars diverted to road signs based on the statutory reimbursement amount. Between 2017 and 2019, lawmakers approved another 57 resolutions, which would have resulted in another $28,500 total reimbursement for the DOT from local gas-tax funds.
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2.    Naming roads after living politicians honors a legacy that is unfinished – for better or for worse

Former DOT Commissioner John Hardee’s guilty plea is only the latest example of what can happen when the state names roads after living public officials. In 2018, for example, former Sen. John Courson – after whom an I-126 interchange was named – pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Following his plea, the Senator requested the signs be removed.  Another lawmaker, former Sen. Robert Ford – after whom a Charleston port connector is named and who pleaded guilty to misconduct in office, forgery, and ethics violations in 2015 – stated, “I earned the right for my name to be on there. No ethics misdemeanor should stop that.”

As long as a politician is still alive, he/she has the potential to violate the law (or to have past mistakes come to light). This is particularly true of public officials who are still in office – as it is impossible to guarantee that their remaining service will be without public misconduct.
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3.    Road-naming proposals are a political favor that benefits everyone but the citizen

Road-naming resolutions not only curry favor for the lawmakers that write them – they also provide free and lasting exposure for the recipients. In the case of public officials, this essentially translates into campaigning on the taxpayer dime.

In other words, should H.5009 pass, the signs over the Greenville interchange will be that many less the Trump campaign will have to pay for – and they’ll be funded by taxpayers.

Moreover, naming roads and buildings after themselves and their fellow officials is simply self-aggrandizement at the public expense – hardly the way in which public servants should handle either their responsibilities or the public purse.
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Two recently filed bills would end this practice: S.893 would prohibit both state and local governments from naming public property after any current or former elected/appointed official until five years after that individual has died, and S.953 would prohibit roads and public buildings from being named after anyone still living.

While they differ in the details, both would reform the ill-advised and often corrupt tradition of rewarding fellow politicians with free public exposure at taxpayer expense.

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