New Transportation chief wants to focus on critical areas

Legislators celebrated a partial victory Friday in the battle to improve South Carolina's roads and bridges: The state has a new transportation chief. And like Buck Limehouse, they say funding that battle must become a priority.

The celebration was over the confirmation of the Charleston native as the state's first secretary of transportation. Limehouse downplayed a $3 billion backlog in bridge repair while saying more tax money is needed for the work.

The state has 1,300 bridges under the same "structurally deficient" designation given an interstate bridge that collapsed Wednesday in Minneapolis, killing at least five people and injuring dozens. It would take $3 billion, or about $150 million a year for the next 20 years, to fix or replace them. In the tri-county area, 104 bridges are rated "structurally deficient."

Limehouse's new position was part of an overhaul of the state Department of Transportation that includes a new formula to try to make sure money gets spent on projects that need it the most.

"I believe the General Assembly and the public feel DOT is headed in a new direction," said Republican House Majority Leader Jim Merrill of Daniel Island.

The challenge is finding more money to improve an overtaxed road system, money that was not approved by the Legislature along with DOT reform this year.

"We're going to have to provide the DOT with additional funding," Republican Sen. Larry Grooms of Bonneau, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said after the meeting. "Our road system in many places in the state is deteriorating.

"Roads were paved primarily based on political needs instead of actual needs," he said. "That was a key element of the reform proposal."

Some readers on The Post and Courier's Web site complained Friday that the state has spent millions of dollars on projects of debatable value instead of using the money to improve existing roads and bridges.

A reader on Charleston.net had a suggestion:

"Instead of Congress and state legislatures earmarking our tax dollars on their pet projects, place the money where it would do the most good," wrote George Nelson of Summerville. "Keeping our roads and bridges safe to drive upon, or is that too much to ask for?"

A state audit last November accused DOT of wasting millions of dollars and favoring new projects that get federal matching funds instead of paving existing roads in need of repair.

The route for Interstate 73 was approved two weeks ago, a project that is expected to cost nearly $2 billion and take 10 years to complete once a mix of state and federal money is secured and construction begins.

The interstate, which eventually will link the state to Michigan, will run 90 miles across South Carolina.

State officials have previously called it South Carolina's top transportation priority.

Limehouse said Friday he thinks a sales tax exemption on gasoline should be removed to help cover rising steel and concrete prices. The state now relies on a 16-cent-per-gallon fuel tax that hasn't increased in 18 years.

Vehicle fuel efficiency has slowed growth in those tax collections, Limehouse said.

"We should remove the exemption. And that will mean it will go up with inflation if gas goes to three or four or five dollars a gallon, then that will increase as it goes up," Limehouse said.

Increases in state and national fuel taxes also are probably inevitable, Limehouse said.

Democratic Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston suggested that the state bring back video poker, which was outlawed in 2000. The games would raise $800,000 a year for repairs for roads and bridges, he said.

"If they don't like that idea, they owe it to the citizens of South Carolina to come up with something better," Ford said. "We know we have bridges and roads that are a real danger to the citizens of South Carolina."

Ford has been proposing video poker to pay for roads for eight years. He said he's frustrated because lawmakers can't agree on other ways to raise money.

"The state needs $16 billion for roads and bridges, and nobody in South Carolina is looking for a way to raise that money," he said. "If they don't want the gaming concept, let them come up with something else, because it's our responsibility to come up with the revenue to run this state."

The Senate approved Limehouse by acclamation, without a formal vote. He watched from the Senate balcony and did not deliver any comments.

Limehouse has been DOT's executive director since May.