Paving Roads with Good Intentions

Please note that this piece ran in The Greenville News on 11 January 2015.

In the old Grimm’s fairy tale Snow White, the Evil Queen asks her magic mirror to name the fairest in the land. Writers often use mirror imagery to hint that divisive issues within the story will reflect the true nature of their characters. In this tale, the Queen did not like the mirror’s answer and her attempted murder of Snow White proved the mirror true.

Mirror imagery holds true in politics as well. Political problems provide excellent mirrors to reflect our politicians’ true natures. Which should be easy to see since we have enough problems in Columbia to make the Statehouse look like the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles . . . or in a carnival.

Our state’s crumbling infrastructure dominates our Hall of Mirrors. This issue constantly reflects our lawmakers’ reluctance to discuss the revenue problems at DOT while our roads worsen and the deferred cost to repair them exponentially increases each year.

They are like characters out of some parable that confuses bad stewardship with the prodigal son. As they spend what they collect in gas taxes today with no thought of tomorrow, they are quick to shed tears when a bridge closes for months, a pothole damages a constituent’s car or the president of Michelin North America points out that our roads are a “disgrace.”

Instead of repeating sound-bite-proof denials of reality, they should explain to their constituents why our current gas tax does not generate enough revenue to maintain our infrastructure. They never mention the insolvency of the federal Highway Trust Fund, which supplies us with federal matching dollars to maintain our interstates. Revenue stagnation from a static gas tax happens in Washington as well as South Carolina.

The Highway Trust Fund was created in 1956 to finance the construction of the interstate system. Over time, Congress expanded the types of roads eligible for matching funds. Though they raised the federal gas tax and added other fees to keep the Fund solvent, they failed.

Since 2008, the Fund has spent $54 billion more than it has received in revenue. Federal law prohibits the Fund from running a deficit, so Congress started transferring dollars from the Treasury’s general fund to make up the difference. During the next decade, the Fund will suffer an additional deficit of $167 billion.

As these transfers turn into life-support infusions, Washington politicians dither about how to save the Fund. Some have introduced legislation increasing the federal gas tax to keep the Fund solvent. Others want to eliminate the Fund completely. Chances are that Washington will remain gridlocked as state matching fund payments fall further behind.

The delay of matching dollars impacts us locally. Just ask anyone in Greer who has detoured around the closed bridge on Memorial Drive Extension. The bridge was washed out last August and remains so.

While we have ignored our infrastructure problem, 30 states have passed significant new road funding measures to repair their roads. The measures include increasing tolls, building new toll roads, redirecting sales tax revenue and raising gas taxes. These states, including North Carolina, have gained a competitive advantage over us.

The General Assembly has a real opportunity this coming Session to pass a viable plan to fix our roads. An important first step to develop this plan has already been taken by Rep. Jay Lucas, the new Speaker of the House.

Last fall, he appointed a bi-partisan transportation study committee that includes Rep. Chandra Dillard and Rep. Phyllis Henderson from Greenville, to explore options to fix our roads. Through their open debate about the severity of our problems, the proper scope of DOT and the diminished capacity of our gas tax, the committee built an excellent foundation of knowledge for the House to use this session.

Yet, even after seeing the hard work of the study committee and hearing the overwhelming consensus from our citizens that our road problems must be fixed, many lawmakers balk at moving forward. They fear that the Governor might veto a revenue increase or that our local governments might be upset if they are given responsibility for secondary roads that they should already be taking care of. Though well intended, they want to move slowly, if at all.

While the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, we really just need concrete and asphalt to pave ours . . . and a mirror to show us lawmakers with the determination to fix the problem.

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