- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The main lawmaker working to get a roads bill through the House said he likes a bill passed Wednesday by the Senate that would borrow about $2 billion for a decade of highway projects and bridge replacement in South Carolina.

Rep. Gary Simrill said that a stable, long-term source of money for road building and repair needs to be found. But borrowing money now helps deal with critical needs like bad bridges and frees up money for the Department of Transportation to work on other projects like repaving highways.

“Borrowing money for capital projects is still relatively cheap. It is a good shot in the arm,” said Simrill, R-Rock Hill.

The Senate passed the bill 34-4 on Wednesday. The four votes against the bill were from Republicans worried about debt.

Now lawmakers from both the House and Senate must work to combine the funding bill with competing versions of different House and Senate bills that change the structure of the board that runs DOT.

Less than an hour after the Senate vote, Gov. Nikki Haley’s spokeswoman issued a statement saying much of the borrowed money would be wasted unless lawmakers allow her to appoint the members of the DOT board.

“Throwing money at a system that’s broken is throwing money away. We need to reform the DOT so that we get rid of the political horse trading,” Chaney Adams said.

The bill passed by the Senate would use $200 million in fees and money from the sales tax on vehicle sales and other revenue to borrow around $2 billion.

The DOT would use that money to fix all the state’s 400 or so load-restricted bridges and 51 structurally deficient bridges on major highways.

It also would expand interstates and fix bottlenecked interstate intersections, including fixing the intersections of Interstates 20 and 26 north of Columbia, better known as “malfunction junction.” The project will likely top $1 billion and has topped the DOT’s priority list since 2008.

The borrowed money would free up to an additional $2 billion over the next 10 years that DOT said can be used to repave less traveled state roads.

But the money doesn’t reach all of DOT’s needs. The agency has said it needs at least $1 billion each year over the next 30 years to get all the state roads up to good condition. Currently, 54 percent of major, noninterstate roads are in poor condition.

Simrill said the state must look at something like raising the gas tax, unchanged in 30 years as vehicles have become more fuel efficient, to assure roads don’t lapse back into terrible shape.

The Senate plan is at least “more than a Band-Aid,” Simrill said.

Simrill is a member of the conference committee looking to reconcile the versions of the bill changing the DOT board. 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.

Members met for the first time Wednesday, agreeing it would be best if the committee eventually combines the funding the DOT board proposal into one big roads bill.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/jeffrey-collins

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