In the first year of a controversial law hiking the state’s gasoline tax and other fees, the S.C. Department of Transportation spent no proceeds in 20 of South Carolina’s 46 counties, newly released records show.
Overall, only about $7 million, or 2.2 percent, of $312.6 million in total revenues collected from July 1, 2017, through June 30 was spent on “external” projects, according to agency records.
The most-recent online records show that 20 counties, including larger counties such as Beaufort, Lexington and Spartanburg, had no expenditures over the one-year period.
DOT paid road contractors in 16 counties – including Saluda County where DOT chief Christy Hall lives – about $6.6 million collectively over the period, though it’s unclear from online records how much actual paving was done.
Asked by The Nerve whether she had any involvement with selecting the project in her home county, Hall in an email response Monday said, “No, I did not influence the selection of this project.”
Records show that a total of approximately $300,000 was spent on S.C. 121 in Saluda County under the “non-NHS (National Highway System) Primary Pavement Program.” Asked why work done in her home county was deemed a priority, Hall said DOT selects projects “through an analytical, not a political process,” though she didn’t elaborate and didn’t provide specifics on the project.
Another collective approximately $285,000 was spent in Year 1 of the tax-hike law for architectural or engineering work in 12 counties, mainly for unspecified “safety improvements,” records show. In Richland County, one of the state’s largest counties, a total of only $635 was spent in the category of “printing binding advertising.”
After The Nerve last month pointed out that DOT had posted no online details of the approximately $7 million in first-year expenditures, the agency added a separate link, titled “IMTF Disbursements,” under its main “Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund” (IMTF) section. DOT earlier said it added the online section as part of its effort to be more transparent about the gas tax hike.
Among other things, the law that took effect July 1, 2017, raised the gas tax by 12 cents over six years and the cap on vehicle sales taxes by $200, increased various biennial vehicle registration fees by $16, and imposed new “road use” fees on hybrid-fuel and electric vehicles.
In pushing for the tax and fee increases, S.C. lawmakers promised the money would be used to fix the state’s pothole-riddled roads and deteriorating bridges. DOT has said 80 percent of the state’s 42,000 miles of roads need resurfacing or rebuilding, and that 465 of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges need to be replaced.
The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, has contended, however, that the law was written in a way to allow DOT to divert IMTF revenues to pay bond debts of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB), which over the years funneled several billion dollars for large construction projects in select counties.
The Nerve in 2015 reported that Florence County – home county of Senate president pro tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and a member of STIB’s board of directors – received more payments over a five-year period from STIB than any other public agency or private company.
Leatherman bragged at a 2014 press conference about a collective $488 million – $340 million from the STIB and $148 million from a county penny sales tax increase – for six road projects in Florence County.
Hall told The Nerve in June that revenues generated under the gas-tax-hike law could be used by the STIB for earlier-approved interstate-widening projects. The nearly $443 million “IMTF Project List,” for example, includes a $34.3 million “interstate upgrade” on I-20 in Lexington County.
Other major interstate projects in Cherokee, Greenville, Richland and Spartanburg counties were approved under a 2013 law.
At an April DOT Commission meeting, Hall said two pending lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the gas-tax-hike law and a related 2016 law have forced the agency to seek other funding sources for interstate projects.
In the meantime, revenues generated under the gas-tax-hike law, known as Act 40 of 2017, remain largely unspent.
Under the law, revenues “must be used exclusively for the repairs, maintenance, and improvements to the existing transportation system.” DOT’s recently posted expenditures list doesn’t explain why certain projects were selected first.
The list shows that much of the approximately $7 million spent in the first year of the law was designated for U.S. highways in the state. That included U.S. 25, 29 and 123 in Greenville County, the state’s largest county, which led all counties in total expenditures over the period.
Following are the 10 counties with the largest listed expenditures in the law’s first year, according to DOT records:
- Greenville: $1,509,966
- Berkeley: $1,504,447
- Dorchester: $896,465
- Jasper: $441,177
- Orangeburg: $425,565
- Sumter: $358,284
- Greenwood: $332,133
- Newberry: $300,134
- Saluda: $290,527
- Darlington: $180,829
Besides Beaufort, Lexington and Spartanburg counties, DOT listed no expenditures over the first year in these counties: Abbeville, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Calhoun, Chester, Clarendon, Dillon, Edgefield, Fairfield, Florence, Hampton, Lee, Marion, McCormick, Union and Williamsburg.