by Cassie Cope, The State, October 24, 2015
“It’s safe to take a nap in the middle of the road,” activist Dana Beach said of Pamplico Highway. The Florence County road does not have enough traffic to justify spending the estimated $144.4 million in state and local money that it will cost to widen it, he added.
So why widen it?
Politics, say critics of the state Infrastructure Bank, including Beach, who is head of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, often critical of development.
Critics long have complained the Infrastructure Bank’s state-financed, road-building efforts are driven by State House clout, not the state’s road needs.
The recent flooding that devastated roads and bridges across South Carolina only increases the need to reform or abolish the Infrastructure Bank bank, making maintenance a priority over the bank’s construction of new roads, says state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort.
But Infrastructure Bank supporters say the money slated for widening the Pamplico Highway will be well spent.
“The (Infrastructure Bank) has really been good for improving the roads, (and) increasing the capacity of the highways in South Carolina,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence.
‘Failure of the system’
The part of Pamplico Highway that is set to be widened looks like most rural two-lane roads in South Carolina.
At least 13 churches line the highway. Farms, houses and cow pastures spread out along the road, its pavement graying with cracks zig-zagging through it. Hannah-Pamplico Elementary/Middle School and Hannah-Pamplico High School — combined enrollment, 1,132 — sit along the road.
Today, like many S.C. highways, part of Pamplico Highway is closed due to a washout from the flooding that hit the state three weeks ago. That washout is not expected to be repaired until after Thanksgiving.
In the future, however, congestion is expected to worsen on the portion of the Pamplico Highway that is closest to the City of Florence. Traffic on that six-mile stretch of highway, also called S.C. 51, has a stable flow now, the state Transportation Department says. But traffic is expected to increase to an unstable flow, the department’s second-worst category for congestion, by 2030.
Already, during rush hours, traffic is horrible, said Leatherman, whose district includes the highway. “It’s bumper to bumper.”
Leatherman added the highway also is a major school bus route and used for evacuations during hurricanes, although the road is not listed as an evacuation route by the Transportation Department.
Widening the highway also would help attract “future economic development opportunities” to the area, the Transportation Department said in a study.
Nancy Cave — like Beach, a staffer with the S.C. Conservation League — said that rationale is common in South Carolina: Build roads and businesses then will come to an area. But, too often, “the road sits there and no business comes.”
“It’s more of an example of the dysfunction and the failure of the system at a general level to allocate transportation dollars rationally,” Beach said.
State bank footing most of Florence bill
The Pamplico Highway widening project was approved by Florence County voters in 2006, when they OK’d a penny-on-the-dollar local sales tax for six road projects.
The Infrastructure Bank committed to paying up to $340 million for the six projects. Up to $148 million will come from the Florence sales tax, according to an August update from the state Transportation Department.
That means state taxpayers are footing the majority of the bill for roads that benefit only a few motorists in one lightly traveled portion of the state, says Beach.
Since its founding in 1997, the Infrastructure Bank has spent $3.6 billion on roads.
Almost a third of that money — $1.1 billion — has gone to the Charleston and Lowcountry areas, including money to extend Interstate 526, which Beach and the Conservation League strongly oppose.
Critics say Charleston projects benefited because the board that governs the Infrastructure Bank was controlled by the appointees of elected officials from the Holy City — then-Gov. Mark Sanford, then-Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell and then-House Speaker Bobby Harrell — for much of its history.
In 2005, Florence’s Leatherman was appointed by McConnell to the board that oversees the Infrastructure Bank. That year, the board approved the initial funding for the Florence County road projects.
Beach said Leatherman — today, arguably the state’s most powerful politician as head of the Senate and chairman of the Senate’s budget-writing Finance Committee — uses the Infrastructure Bank “as his own personal slush fund.”
Leatherman says the highways in the Florence County roads package justify state spending because they are state highways.
The Senate leader said Florence County residents also should be lauded for agreeing to tax themselves, via the local-option sales tax, as part of their bid to attract state money from the Infrastructure Bank. The citizens of more counties should do the same, he added.
Should bank be abolished?
The Infrastructure Bank, which issues bonds to pay for roads, was created to help pay for the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston. It is charged with helping local governments pay for projects that cost more than $100 million.
Former state Transportation Department Secretary Buck Limehouse said the Infrastructure Bank was his brainchild. His son, state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, introduced legislation to create the bank.
“We built projects that we never would have had enough money to do and we’re using those projects now as we pay for them,” Buck Limehouse said, adding the bank allows the state to benefit by selling bonds at today’s low interest rates.
However, opponents say the Infrastructure Bank needs to be abolished, removing politics from decisions about roads.
This month’s flooding will increase the public pressure on lawmakers to repair the state’s roads and bridges, said Sen. Davis, who blocked a plan to raise taxes to pay for road repairs earlier this year, saying additional money was not needed because of state surpluses.
“It’s a different thing entirely when you’ve got a fire hose of water turned onto the Midlands and Lowcountry in South Carolina, and you actually see these roads and bridges crumbling,” said Davis.
Davis endorses getting rid of the Infrastructure Bank or making it accountable to the governor, saying the bank’s focus on building new roads — rather than maintenance —is wrongheaded.
The seven-member board that governs the Infrastructure Bank also is controlled by too few politicians, Davis said, noting the speaker of the S.C. House and Senate president pro tempore name four of the bank board’s seven members.
(Leatherman, the Senate president pro tem, appointed himself as one member of the board. He said he did so because he always has had in interest in the state’s highway system.)
State government “should never have that kind of money being allocated and spent with that much control given to two individuals,” said Davis, referring to Leatherman and S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, who appoint a majority of the bank board’s seven members.
The result of that control is that road projects are selected on the basis of political influence, not need, critics say.
The Infrastructure Bank highlights “the manipulation of vast amounts of state dollars by powerful politicians,” Beach said.
But bank board member Joe Taylor of Columbia said that belief is a misconception. The board reacts to applications for roads money, not political clout.
“A lot of people think we go out and pick projects,” said Taylor, a former S.C. Commerce secretary. “We, typically, react to local governments who apply.”
Taylor said politics may have been at play in the past, but he has not seen it since he joined the board in 2013.
Infrastructure Bank opponent Beach isn’t buying that.
Pamplico Highway “is the most glaring example of the abuse in the system and the corruption in the system,” he said.
Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.
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