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Bipartisan legislative committee meeting promises comprehensive plan to improve SC roads

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — A special legislative committee brought together to figure out how to improve South Carolina's roads will need to find a solution that both finds more money and realigns the state's roads agency to better spend those funds, the committee chairman said Tuesday.

The 13-member bipartisan committee created by Senate and House leaders met for the first time Tuesday. Getting more money for roads has been talked about over the past few Legislative sessions, but not much has been done.

Acting Speaker Jay Lucas, who helped create the committee, told its members they must act now and have proposals in place so the Legislature can act on them when they return in January.

"At the current level, all we're doing now is managing the decay of the road system in South Carolina," said Lucas, R-Hartsville.

Last year, lawmakers and Gov. Nikki Haley agreed to use a mix of revenue from new growth, reallocated sales taxes from vehicles and borrowing to raise an extra $1 billion for roads over 10 years. But that is nowhere close to the $5 billion to $6 billion a coalition of business groups has said is needed just for the most critical projects in the state.

The Department of Transportation recently updated its long-term transportation plan, saying it needs $42 billion in additional money to meet all its needs by 2040.

Committee chairman Gary Simrill said the panel will consider all ideas, including raising the state's 16-cent-a-gallon gas tax, unchanged since 1987. But he said that can't be the only solution to raising more money. He said the state needs to at least consider issuing bonds and raising some fees and other measures. He also touted the success of a sales tax on roads in his home in York County, which has been approved three different times by voters wanting to improve roads in one of the state's fastest growing areas near Charlotte, North Carolina.

"When people see their tax dollars at work through asphalt and white and yellow lines and orange barrels, it makes them want to continue," said Simrill, R-Rock Hill.

But the committee acknowledged just raising more money might not be enough to get Republicans on board. House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, who helps put together the state budget, said restructuring is not an option and the state needs to look at finding ways to reduce its road network. South Carolina maintains

"The system has to change before we add any revenue to it," said White, R-Anderson.

The committee met for more than three hours on Tuesday, hearing from DOT Secretary Janet Oakley, who has been on the job for four months, as well as several other DOT employees, who talked about the condition of the state's roads and how the agency spends its money.

Oakley fended off questions about specific road projects, and Simrill reminded members they wanted to talk about plans for the statewide network of roads.

Oakley told the committee she wanted DOT to continue toward making decisions based on measurable data, as required by a 2007 law restructuring her agency.

The committee also heard from the Revenue Department discussing how much money DOT can raise and the Treasurer's Office to discuss that the state's ability to borrow money through bonds is likely limited if it wants to maintain a triple-A credit rating.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP

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