- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Legislators gave final approval Wednesday to legislation designed to jump-start improvements to South Carolina’s deteriorating roads.

The House’s 109-2 vote sent the compromise to Gov. Nikki Haley. Her office has not yet said whether she’ll sign it.

Assistant Majority Leader Gary Simrill encouraged his colleagues to accept what senators passed late Tuesday, saying it comes down to not allowing another session to end without a roads bills.

“What I want to do is get something done,” said Simrill, R-Rock Hill, who’s led the House’s road-funding efforts since fall 2014. “It sets about the process of making sure South Carolina’s roadways will not be the laughingstock, the embarrassment,” known for tire-busting potholes.

The measure allows for $2.2 billion in borrowing over 10 years for infrastructure, funded with $200 million annually in existing fees and vehicle sales taxes. Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall has said that frees up other money the agency can use to replace bridges and pave roads, allowing more than $4 billion worth of total work.

Hall said that work includes replacing about 400 bridges statewide - eliminating the entire list of load-restricted bridges as well as 51 structurally deficient bridges on interstates and major highways.

The chambers agreed to the borrowing plan after senators had blocked proposals for the past two years that increased gas taxes.

Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman calls it a step in addressing South Carolina’s crumbling highways - not a fix. The DOT has said it needs $1.5 billion annually over several decades to bring the nation’s fourth-largest highway system to good condition.

Opponents of hiking the gas tax - unchanged at 16 cents since 1987 - insisted on first restructuring the DOT to give the governor’s office more oversight before sending the agency more money. They argued politics, not priorities, dictated which projects got funded.

With just one day left in the legislative session, the remaining dispute between the House and Senate had been the appointing process for DOT commissioners.

Neither chamber wanted to eliminate the commission, as Haley does. Currently, Hall answers to both Haley and the commission, where legislators appoint seven of its eight members.

The final compromise gives the governor input in selecting all eight commissioners, though legislators still must approve them through a multistep process. Commissioners would again hire the DOT secretary. The governor has appointed the secretary since legislators last restructured the agency in 2007.

The measure also specifies that the secretary reports to the commission, which reports to the governor. Simrill said that solves confusion about who’s responsible for what, as cited in a recent audit of the agency.

“Although this bill is not perfect, the House and Senate have worked together, made tough decisions and followed through with our promise to fix South Carolina’s roads,” said House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville.

He called on Haley to sign the bill as soon as it reaches her. The request comes a day after he took the podium to bash senators for their inaction and Haley for not demanding a vote.

“The people of South Carolina should not have to wait any longer for their dangerous roads and bridges to be repaired,” Lucas said.

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