- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A bill that provides for more than $4 billion in road and bridge construction across South Carolina over 10 years advanced Wednesday to the Senate floor.

The proposal approved overwhelmingly by the Senate Finance Committee raises $2.2 billion through borrowing. That frees up other money the Department of Transportation can use to replace bridges and pave roads, allowing $4 billion worth of work total, Secretary Christy Hall said.

Senators praised the plan as a way to jump-start improvements to South Carolina’s crumbling roads without raising taxes or fees. However, they cautioned that it’s not a long-term solution. The DOT has said it needs $1.5 billion annually over 30 years to bring the state’s highway system to good condition.

“Don’t be fooled. This is nowhere near the answer to the problem,” said Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney.

The proposal builds on a similar law passed in 2013, which leveraged state money with federal aid and borrowing to fund about $1 billion worth of work over a decade. That money covers only preliminary engineering for five of the nine interstate projects approved for funding under that law.

Those projects would be completed under the advanced proposal.

That includes widening 10 miles of Interstate 85 in Cherokee County, widening 12 miles of Interstate 26 in Berkeley and Dorchester counties and fixing the intersections of Interstates 20 and 26 north of Columbia, better known as “malfunction junction.” The latter project - expected to cost more than $1 billion - has topped the DOT’s priority list since 2008.

Hall said the proposal also allows for the replacement of about 400 bridges - eliminating the entire list of load-restricted bridges statewide, as well as 51 structurally deficient bridges on interstates and major highways.

The borrowing would be funded with $200 million annually - over 15 years - from vehicle sales taxes and certain Department of Motor Vehicles fees.

“I see this as a terrific shot in the road-problem arm,” Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said of his bill. “I think it’s a step the people of this state will be extremely happy with.”

It appears the plan will pass the Senate, where opponents of raising the gas tax last month defeated an effort to raise roughly $800 million additional yearly for roadwork. Its chief blocker, Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, was among those voting for the borrowing plan.

After nearly two years of debate, the separate road-funding measure has been reduced to a government restructuring bill. Gov. Nikki Haley wants full control of the DOT, which is now overseen by both a secretary appointed by the governor and a commission appointed by legislators.

Under the Senate version, Haley would get to choose all commissioners, with approval from the Senate. The House amended the bill last week to give that chamber a vote in the confirmation process, too.

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said Wednesday the borrowing bill makes it much more likely that the chambers can reach a compromise on restructuring.

GOP Sens. Kevin Bryant of Anderson and Shane Martin of Pauline, who object to borrowing, were the only two voting against the proposal.

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