- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 5, 2016

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s Department of Transportation should better prioritize the state’s roadwork needs, list them in a way that’s understandable and time construction to reduce repair costs, the Legislative Audit Council said in a report released Tuesday.

The council’s long-awaited audit, requested by legislators, found the state’s highway system has deteriorated significantly since 2008, even as the DOT added 760 miles of lanes. While that widened congested roads, it added to maintenance costs.

The report comes amid the Legislature’s debate over how to fix South Carolina’s crumbling roadways.

DOT’s reliance on a per-gallon gas tax, unchanged since 1987, can be a problem as inflation increases construction costs and more fuel-efficient vehicles mean people buy less gas, auditors wrote.

Sen. Tom Davis, whose filibusters over the last two years have blocked a gas tax increase, said the report backs up his argument that the Legislature must first change how the agency’s governed.

Currently, the DOT is jointly overseen by the governor, who appoints the secretary, and a board of commissioners appointed by legislators. That creates confusion and undermines authority, according to the report.

“We have a structure in place that inherently scatters the money,” said Davis, R-Beaufort. “It’s not just a theoretical argument. It’s why stuff doesn’t get done.”

Secretary Christy Hall, who took DOT’s helm last summer, said the agency complies with the 2007 state law that requires the ranking and prioritizing of projects. She said the “complex” system can be improved. In a statement, she and other DOT leaders agreed on the “vast majority” of recommendations in the 335-page report.

As it is, “it’s not a transparent system,” said LAC audit manager Brad Hanley. “They may be following things well, but they don’t document it. We can’t tell with any assurance it’s being properly implemented.”

The report’s recommendations include consolidating priorities to a single list, though the commission - in a separate statement - disagreed.

“A single list will be confusing at best and extremely difficult to justify given the vast differences between types of projects,” the commission said.

Currently, projects are prioritized under 15 categories, including interstate widening, paving and bridges. It’s unclear how commissioners choose which projects to advance from the various lists, according to the LAC.

As to whether priorities were listed in correct order, auditors could not verify projects’ scores. And while state law allows lower-ranked projects to leapfrog higher priorities in certain cases, the commission provided no written justification for such decisions, the report found.

“There’s no overall comprehensive ranking so we know what our priorities are as a state,” Davis said. “We need a statewide prioritization that we can look at and all agree to.”

The report also found DOT should periodically review road conditions to identify when pavements are on the verge of deteriorating into poor condition. Once that happens, repairs become much more costly. The LAC suggests publishing a yearly list that specifies those roads and mile markers, which could result in projects being re-prioritized.

Gov. Nikki Haley continued pressuring House leaders on Monday to agree to the road-funding plan the Senate passed last month. It would allow Haley to appoint all commissioners.

“It comes as no surprise to anyone who has been watching that our transportation system is broken,” said her spokeswoman, Chaney Adams. “We have an opportunity to fix this problem.”

But House leaders contend the funding part of the proposal is foolish, as it designates $400 million annually from state tax collections to roads. In the future, that will require either cutting essential services or simply ignoring the law, which means roadwork won’t be funded, House leaders of both parties say.

A House panel meets Thursday to discuss the audit and the Senate’s plan.

“Given the multi-year timeframe of most transportation projects,” auditors wrote, it’s important that the DOT be able to rely on dedicated funding outside of the budget process.

___

LAC webpage with links to the full report and summary:

https://lac.sc.gov/LAC_Reports/2016/Pages/SCDOT.aspx

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