Gas-Tax Increase Fuels Better Transportation in South Carolina

The Palmetto State has a reputation of being economically strong based on housing demands, consumer spending, jobs and industrial growth, coastlines and picturesque areas such as Charleston. So one might expect that the underpinning of that economy – its transportation system – would be something to emulate. But as transportation funding continues to lag across America, this has not been the case.

Now, South Carolina is positioned to change that.

After a battle that saw widespread engagement from the business community, politicians and a public increasingly weary of congestion, unsafe roads, and damage to their vehicles, the South Carolina House and Senate approved this spring a gas-tax increase of 12 cents over six years to create a sustainable transportation revenue stream.

Overriding Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto, the first two cents just recently went into effect. The last time the gas tax had been raised in South Carolina was in 1987.

“In South Carolina we have been struggling with the deterioration of our roads and bridges and they have continually gotten worse,” says Ted Pitts, CEO and president of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. “The asphalt was literally starting to crumble beneath the tires of South Carolina cars and motorists that drove through the state.”

The United States’ infrastructure and an overburdened American transportation system – which every day links millions of people, places and businesses – have become hot-button issues. More and more, transportation funding is in the news, part of an expanding grassroots dialogue, and broached by leaders as one of the country’s greatest challenges.

“If the federal government had its act together, you wouldn’t have every state in the country talking about fixing roads,” notes Pitts, who says South Carolina drew down and leveraged its eligible federal monies. “But South Carolina is going to work on South Carolina’s problems and solutions.”

The Picture Up-Close

Pitts is both a former South Carolina state representative (Lexington County) and chief of staff for former Gov. Nikki Haley. One of the prominent business leaders who helped South Carolina get the tax increase over the finish line, he has been at the helm of the South Carolina Chamber for almost three years.

Pitts understands the history of funding transportation in South Carolina well. He says the South Carolina Chamber proactively put the issue on its agenda in 2003 when questions persisted over the efficiency of the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT), which has since been reformed to reduce some of the former politics in play. Now it uses prioritization criteria and communicates needs and how additional revenue will be used.

In 2013 and 2016, bonding helped the state push through billions in infrastructure funding to begin addressing about 1,000 bridges in disrepair and much-needed interstate projects. Even though there was more attention focused on South Carolina’s lack of transportation funding, proponents still faced a legislative climb to build a movement for creating an ongoing and guaranteed funding source.

The South Carolina Chamber undertook an effort, “The Cost of Losing,” along with other area chambers of commerce. “We made the case through a public relations campaign that the cost of doing nothing was actually costing taxpayers more than the cost of fixing our roads,” according to Pitts. Other strategies, such as those by the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, helped various stakeholders coalesce around key messages. These initiatives drove support by General Assembly members and their constituents.

Public relations included outreach through direct mail, social media and other online efforts. Pitts says elected officials and the public responded to the narrative that the state could not afford to wait any longer, as well as to concerns about South Carolina’s deadly highway system and that bad roads cost taxpayers because of damage done to vehicles.

Big Business at the Microphone

But the voice of American enterprise also echoed loudly. In the last several years, press conferences were held during which business leaders would point to the General Assembly’s need to focus on transportation funding and fixes.

“You had Pete Selleck, who was the Michelin North America president, come out and say if you don’t address the infrastructure issues, Michelin will look to expand in other states,” explains Pitts. “These sorts of things – the safety aspect, business folks complaining that they are going to start looking at other places for their investment, and the vehicles that are damaged on our roads and people sitting in traffic – brought everything to a head.”

He also points to influencers, such as South Carolina Speaker of the House Jay Lucas, who were strong advocates. Lucas helped lead the charge on the public-policy side and set up a study committee years back.

“It was a bipartisan bill and had a majority of Democrats and Republicans [for example, there was tax relief in the bill] supporting the proposal,” adds Pitts. “When leaders ultimately come together and do what’s in the best interest of their constituents and the people of South Carolina, we knew this would eventually happen. We are very thankful for the leadership that got us to this point.”

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