The chief part of Sheheen’s plan is having lawmakers come up with a plan over several years that ends with dedicating 5 percent of the state budget and surplus every year to repairing and building roads. That would have raised about $350 million last year, and he thinks with economic growth, it can give the state about $500 million extra to spend on roads.
That number is well below the nearly $1.5 billion in extra funding the state Department of Transportation has said it would need over 20 years to bring South Carolina roads up to good condition. But Sheheen said it would be impossible for South Carolina to come up with that kind of money on its own.
Sheheen hopes to have all the extra money in place in five years, but he said he would be willing to delay the plan if the state has a tough year or two economically. He wants to use revenue growth to build up the road fund instead of cutting from other areas.
His road plan would also involve borrowing money immediately for important projects that can’t wait, because the state has almost finished paying off bonds used to build schools 16 years ago. He thinks the state should concentrate on repairing roads and adding additional lanes where needed instead of building new ones. He also wants to reorganize the Department of Transportation to make it more accountable to the governor and the Legislature.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and potential independent candidate Tom Ervin have not given details for their road plans, although neither supports raising the gas tax.
Ervin wants to eliminate the personal income tax and pass additional tax reform to provide money for roads and bridges and improve the economy.
Earlier this month, Haley promised to have a comprehensive plan to increase road funding to give to the Legislature when it comes back into session in January, two months after the election.
Haley’s campaign spokesman Chaney Adams said she is glad Sheheen supports what the governor has always backed – finding money already in the budget instead of raising taxes.
Sheheen said the most important part of his plan is a willingness to listen to any ideas about how to fund roads. He said he doesn’t think House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford’s plan to build casinos in Myrtle Beach and use part of the money made for roads is a good one, but he wants to listen to it and any other ideas.
“Every idea has to be put on the table for discussion,” Sheheen said.
At just under 17 cents a gallon, the state’s gas tax is one of the lowest in the U.S. and unchanged since 1987.
Sheheen said poorer people pay a disproportionate share of the tax, and more efficient vehicles and the possibility of alternative fuels make depending on the gas tax a risky proposition.
“If we only rely on the gas tax, we’ll be back having this discussion 10 years from now,” Sheheen said.