Tiny agency with big bucks needs tighter control, senators told

01/10/2013 4:32 PM

01/10/2013 10:29 PM

A tiny state agency that has awarded billions of dollars for highways and bridges in South Carolina, including Carolina Bays Parkway in the Myrtle Beach area, should be abolished and its duties taken over by the S.C. Department of Transportation, a leading conservationist said.

Charleston environmentalist Dana Beach told state senators during a briefing Wednesday that the state Infrastructure Bank is little more than a “slush fund’’ for legislators and needs tighter controls.

The bank was established in 1997 to operate independent of the DOT.

Its mission is to borrow money so major road projects can be built quickly. Boosters say it has helped finance badly needed projects, such as a new bridge over the Cooper River in Charleston and early work on the Carolina Bays Parkway near Myrtle Beach.

But the board is controlled by a politically appointed seven-member board that has awarded most of the money to three counties: Charleston, Horry and Greenville, records show. Some 60 percent to 70 percent of the funding commitments have gone to those counties, the bank reports. In the past six years, the Infrastructure Bank has committed about $3 billion for roads and bridges.

Most of the board members are picked by the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore, both of whom were from Charleston until recently.

“When it was conceived, it actually used that money effectively in some early projects, but it very quickly deteriorated into what is essentially a slush fund for the people who control the money,” said Beach, who is leading efforts to stop a more than $500 million expressway project in Charleston that was funded through the bank.

He urged lawmakers to put the bank under the DOT and to prevent the bank from committing future bonding capacity beyond what the state already has agreed to borrow.

Sen. John Courson, who became Senate pro-tem last year, said he has asked new bank board member Joe Taylor of Columbia –whom he appointed – to look at moving the Infrastructure Bank under the Department of Transportation. Courson, R-Richland, suggested after Wednesday’s meeting that too much had been spent on coastal projects.

“If we put any more money for bridges and highways into Charleston County, it will sink into the Atlantic Ocean,’’ Courson said.

Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican who formerly held the Senate pro tempore post, said the bank was created because the DOT couldn’t fund “mega” projects quickly. Areas that have gotten bank money have been the most aggressive at seeking the funds, he said.

“We need to improve our infrastructure and we need to maintain the road system, so destroying the Infrastructure Bank doesn’t take us forward – it takes us backward,’’ McConnell said. “Putting things purely under the DOT is not going to remove politics.’’

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