Grand Strand legislators warn there will be a push for a motor fuel tax next legislative session to help bridge the gap of the state’s road improvement needs and funding.
Area legislators spoke at a luncheon hosted by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and presented by the Coastal Carolina Association of Realtors last week and were pretty clear about one major topic on the agenda in 2015.
“In the Senate, I believe the debate will be fully engaged this year for funding roads and infrastructure,” said Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach. “That’s the biggest problem that we face in South Carolina. It’s the most difficult problem. That’s going to dominate a lot of our conversation.”
South Carolina has the fourth largest state-maintained system in the country, totaling 41,500 miles, according to the S.C. Department of Transportation. SCDOT officials have said it needs $42 billion in the next 30 years to address the state’s road needs.
Hembree said legislators, himself included, are too reactionary when it comes to issues like the motor fuel tax. He said if a tragedy struck the area that was a result of bad roads, “We’d be rushing to Columbia for a special session to pass a gas tax or to pass a highway funding mechanism.”
“It baffles me sometimes why we have to wait to get to a crisis to do the right thing,” Hembree said.
He said there is a need for the public to trust the money will be put to its best use.
“That’s the key,” Hembree said. “We want to make it as efficient as we can because if we’re going to go to the public and ask for more money, we have to show them that were being as responsible as we can be with that money. The public will support a tax increase for something that’s tangible, something they see they can benefit from. If I say to the public, ‘send the money to me in Columbia and trust me,’ they’re going to have a problem with that, and they should. I completely agree. But when you say send the money to build roads directly, take me out of the equation ... then I believe the public will support it locally and support it statewide.”
Currently, said Sen. Luke Rankin, South Carolina is 47th in the country in funding roads.
“Funding for roads will be a big deal,” Rankin said. “South Carolina’s current funding mechanism leaves us woefully underfunded.”
Not since 1989 has South Carolina passed a motor fuel tax increase, also known as a state excise tax, which brought it up to 16 cents per gallon — still one of the lowest in the country. The national average of state fuel excise taxes is 20.5 cents per gallon.
“Long story short, we’re going to have to do it,” Rankin said. “We’re going to have to bite the bullet.”
“We have to and you will see a push. It’s not just about job creation or contractors. It’s not just about keeping up with our neighbors from an economic development standpoint. From a base level, it’s about safety, it’s about lives, it’s about the people that we see ... whose lives are jeopardized because of inadequate, poorly maintained roads.”
Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Surfside Beach, said he sees the only fair way to pay for roads is by collecting from those who use the roads.
“The best place to collect the money is at the pump,” Hardwick said. “When I drive back and forth to Columbia, it varies 10 cents any given week in gas. ... If you don’t drive the car, you don’t use the road, so you don’t pay the fee.
“I have no problem in voting for a road use fee. If you’ve got a problem with it, vote for somebody else because I will support it.”
Rep. Alan Clemmons, R-Myrtle Beach, said he’s certain there’s going to be a push for a gas tax, but encouraged his fellow legislators to ensure the money raised locally stays local for new roads.
“I believe I’ll be pushing back on the gas tax unless there are funds set aside for new infrastructure,” Clemmons said.
He has long been a proponent for Interstate 73, a planned interstate to link Myrtle Beach to as far north as Michigan.
“I would like to encourage the delegation to make any support of a gas tax contingent upon our needs in this area, and our specific needs go toward new infrastructure,” he said.