Originally created 12/15/03

Study supports gasoline tax increase



AIKEN - Even state bureaucrats have wish lists they want Santa to make and check twice.

For South Carolina transportation officials, that stocking stuffer is a survey of the state's road and rail needs for the next two decades, a catalog titled the South Carolina Multimodal Transportation Plan.

This $56.9 billion grab bag includes everything a highway engineer or mass transit advocate could hope to see under the tree for 20 Christmases to come, from the widening to six lanes of Interstate 20 from the Savannah River into Aiken County, to the replacement of crumbling bridges and the purchase of commuter trains.

The study by economists at the Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs at Clemson University warns that South Carolina's present system for generating money for transportation projects won't raise enough to pay for all of the projects on the wish list.

If the state doesn't raise its 16.75-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax and find other sources of revenue, there will be a $30.6 billion gap between what South Carolina can pay for and what officials want to see, said Ellen Saltzman, one of the co-authors of the Clemson study.

To close this gap, the scholars propose a variety of options, including raising the gasoline tax for the first time since 1987 and indexing it to the rate of inflation, taxing rental-car leases, raising vehicle-registration fees, raising the cap on sales taxes for automobile purchases and charging special fees in traffic-clogged urban areas for parking and vehicle registration.

South Carolina lawmakers say that wishes are nice but unaffordable luxuries, particularly in a state that faces a budget deficit that could top $500 million next year.

"To simply take a wish list that deals with only one aspect of life in South Carolina just isn't realistic," said state Rep. Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "You can't say we need to focus only on transportation and ignore education or other issues. If we were to fund every wish list that every organization put together, the people of South Carolina would have nothing left from their paychecks."

Maybe so, said Ms. Saltzman, but inflation has cut deeply into state road revenue. South Carolina's gasoline-tax revenue is only 62 percent of its 1987 value; to buy the same amount of asphalt today, the gasoline tax needs to be 25.8 cents a gallon, she said.

Nationally, 62.8 percent of highway revenue comes from federal and state gasoline taxes, an indication that other states, including Georgia, pump sales tax revenue into their road fund.

With the nation's fifth-largest network of state-maintained roads - 42,000 miles - South Carolina spends only $242 a person on highways, compared to the national average of $319 and the Southeastern average of $299.

While South Carolina might not be able to afford every project on the transportation wish list, the state does need to revamp the way it pays for roads and bridges.

"Once again, it's just basic common sense," said state Sen. Tommy Moore, D-Clearwater. "You have to maintain and fix your infrastructure. Otherwise, it starts crumbling, and then you've got a big problem, sure enough."

Mr. Harrell and other Republican lawmakers agree, but they warn that the Republican-controlled Legislature is in no mood to raise taxes.

Before considering an at-the-pump increase, state Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, wants to see all of South Carolina's gasoline-tax revenue earmarked for roads. Only $312 million of that $469 million goes to the Department of Transportation - $20 million goes to economic development and $60 million goes to the general fund.

A ROAD MAP FOR MONEY

South Carolina has the fifth-largest network of state-maintained roads in the nation, with 42,000 miles. Georgia is 11th, with 18,221 miles.

South Carolina's gasoline tax - 16.75 cents a gallon and last raised in 1987 - ranks 46th in the nation. Georgia's, which is 12 cents a gallon, is next to last. Alaska, at 8 cents a gallon, is the nation's lowest.

South Carolina has the nation's second-highest dependancy on gasoline taxes for highway revenue - 88 percent comes from federal and state motor fuel levies. Georgia, at 60 percent, ranks 34th in the nation.

At $28,652 for each road mile, South Carolina is last in the nation in highway spending; Georgia, at $81,916 is 27th.

Source: The Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs at Clemson University

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.