Originally created 08/03/97

`Timing was right' for new senator's road projects



CHARLESTON, S.C. - Somebody call Ripley's. Here's a story they might not believe.

It seems a politician campaigned to go to Columbia to do something about building much-needed roads and bridges around the state. And this lawmaker - and this is the believe-it-or-not part - did pretty much what he set out to do.

The day after he was elected last fall, state Sen. Arthur Ravenel, R-Mount Pleasant, was telling reporters about a proposed $1.2 billion infrastructure bank.

The bank board held its first meeting last week and projects like a new $400 million Cooper River Bridge, which for decades had been relegated to some uncertain future, could be underway in as little as two years.

"The timing was right," said Ravenel, a former congressman who says the key to getting the bank approved was support of key committee chairmen, both Democrat and Republican, and GOP Gov. David Beasley.

He said lawmakers realized the importance of transportation projects, especially along the Grand Strand, which attracts millions of tourists who pour millions into state coffers each year.

The idea is to put new state revenues toward financing bonds for a select group of major projects. The board last week agreed the Conway Bypass to shunt tourists to and from Myrtle Beach should be the top priority.

Infrastructure banks have been used in other states. A bank proposal was introduced in the Legislature last year, but that measure did not outline the five major projects Ravenel did and never made it to the full Senate.

"Frankly, the credit goes to Arthur," said Rep. Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who fought alongside other Charleston delegation members to secure money to replace the decaying Charleston bridges. "He talked about it so much, he almost forced a discussion on it."

The idea had bipartisan support because "everybody realized there was a need for infrastructure," he said.

The proposal also got a needed boost when Beasley mentioned it in his State of the State message.

"I give the credit for the infrastructure bank being what it is now to two individuals: (Conway Democrat) Luke Rankin and Arthur Ravenel," said John Land, D-Manning, chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee.

He said he went along with a revamped version of Ravenel's plan because it provided much-needed road money without looting the state Transportation Department.

But Land said a gasoline tax, opposed by the governor, would have been a better idea. "Road needs should be met by user fees," he said.

"There were very few people who felt like we shouldn't do anything," Harrell said. "The devil was in the details."

Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, supported a bank that would give some level of matching funds to communities that came up with local money for projects. The bank now is designed to pay for big-ticket projects.

Thomas warned the current structure will result in a "political free-for-all." He fears a disproportionate number of projects going to the Lowcountry, despite huge business growth in the Upstate.

But Ravenel said Horry County, the heart of the state's tourism industry, has tremendous transportation needs.

He said the proposal had a "rough and rocky road" in the Legislature.

In the waning days of the session, Thomas tried to amend the bill to give the Upstate more clout while two Charleston senators were out of the chamber. Ravenel, with years of experience under his belt, quickly took the floor and staved off the proposed change until the other senators could rush back into the chamber.

Another big challenge came earlier in the year when some House Republicans wanted to change the focus and, instead of bonds, adopt a pay-as-you-go strategy. That idea was rejected 64-50.

Ravenel said "pay-as-you-go" would have delayed projects for years and sharply raised construction costs because of inflation.

The bank got another shot in the arm recently when state forecasters predicted there could be as much as $45 million in additional state revenues this year - money that will go to the bank.

It cannot be used to finance bonds because it is not reoccurring money, but it could be used for one-time costs such as engineering and land acquisition, Ravenel said.