Editorial | Understand history before critizing Infrastructure Bank road spending

06/23/2013 12:00 AM

06/21/2013 2:14 PM

Despite a barrage of criticism and demands for change last year, the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank survived the legislative session. Bills dealing with the agency ranged from dissolving it and turning its duties over to the state Department of Transportation, to revising its purpose and using it for repair rather than big new projects.

Far from trashing the bank and its board, however, lawmakers decided to toss more money at it, slated mainly for road and bridge repair. Legislators agreed to deposit $50 million a year to the bank, which can be leveraged in bond issues and used to match federal highway money, resulting in $500 million overall or even $1 billion, state Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, said this week.

Peeler, the Senate's majority leader, led a committee to work out differences in House and Senate bills seeking ways to attack the looming $29 billion in road and bridge repair needs.

Bill supporters said the existing Infrastructure Bank, or SIB as it is known in government circles, is the best vehicle to use because it can issue bonds in amounts and ways that the Department of Transportation cannot, and it has a separate board to oversee the funds.

Much of the criticism of the bank has been that it has spent most of its money in Horry, Charleston and Greenville counties, and it sets its own priorities, not necessarily those of the DOT. Critics in some parts of the state complained they didn't get any of the bank's money. Some even hinted that the bank is a political slush fund that doles out road money in back-room deals.

There is no evidence to indicate that is true, but discussion of the bill during the week showed that even many lawmakers, who created the bank in 1997, don't understand its purpose.

Rural areas never got any of the Infrastructure Bank money, some said, but the Infrastructure Bank was formed precisely to help finance “major'' projects. And it is because of the voters of Horry County that the Infrastructure Bank exists. Moreover, without the bank there would be no S.C. 22 or S.C.31.

Let us take a moment to recall. In March of 1996, Horry County voters shot down by a 2-1 margin a 1 percent sales tax for roads. The vote came despite overwhelming support from the business sector including The Sun News editorial board. Supporters said there was no other way Horry County was going to get gridlock relief, that there was no “Plan B'' because the state did not have the money to pay for everything Horry County needed.

But there was a Plan B after all. After the election, local leaders went to then-Gov. David Beasley and pleaded with him to do something, anything. Gary Loftus, now a member of Horry County Council, was on the DOT board and helped work out the idea of an infrastructure bank.

At the same time, Charleston area leaders had been screaming that the aging 1938 Cooper River bridge was in dangerous condition and needed to be replaced. Again, no money from the state. These two major needs came together to force the state's hand on helping to pay for them.

In January of 1997, Beasley sent the proposal to the Legislature. In his announcement, he said the voters of Horry County were right. They should not have to pay for state roads.

It was a new and somewhat controversial idea, but remarkably passed into law in what is relatively lightning-fast for the S.C. Legislature. Beasley signed the law on June 26 in a ceremony in Myrtle Beach.

The catch with the Infrastructure Bank is that the area requesting money must put up matching funds. Horry County quickly imposed a 1.5 percent hospitality tax to pay its share. This could be done by the council without approval of the voters, and was thought to be less odious to residents because mostly visitors would pay it.

Local leaders formed the RIDE plan -- Road Improvement Development Effort -- with the first phase totaling $545 million. It was the first project funded by the bank. Second, of course, was the new bridge for Charleston, now known as the Ravenel Bridge.

The amount of matching funds was not specified, but left to the bank board's discretion, and at one time Horry County had paid the biggest match of any of the projects. It is now topped in share paid by a much smaller project, but has still paid the most in total dollars.

And it is still ongoing. Of about $3 billion spent since the bank began, Horry projects have received more than $700 million and the county has put up almost $650 million in addition.

The RIDE projects cost $1.15 billion, and the local share was $550 million. The sales tax projects, including extending S.C. 31, total $331 million and the county is to pay $94 million of that.

Residents and lawmakers from other parts of the state see these numbers and grumble. Some have also complained that the projects were not prioritized. But they were.

The law may not say so, but it was designed just for Horry roads and Charleston's bridge. The discussion in the Capitol in 1997 made no bones about it. Whatever came afterward was OK, but the bank was to take care of those projects because the consensus in most of the state's leadership was that they were needed and there was no way the state could pay for them in the usual way.

The new money put into the bank this year must be prioritized on a more statewide basis, and that's a good thing.

Whether one likes the projects that have been done or not, the Infrastructure Bank has worked for Horry County in ways that nothing else did. Whatever becomes of the bank from now forward, it covered the pressing need of the county that rubbed residents and visitors raw from the late 1980s to 1997.

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