The test case for reform


By Phil Noble - Contributing Columnist



Simple math: High Cost + Bad Roads = Corruption

To say that there is corruption in the South Carolina Department of Transportation is like saying its dark at night.

The question is will the current ‘reform’ effort shed any light in the darkness or is this simply the case of the day following the night – only to see the darkness return. We’ll see.

State highway departments, especially in the South, have been notoriously corrupt since the 1930s when states first began to spend significant money to pave dirt roads. To adapt a saying from the Watergate era, corruption ‘follows the money’ and highway department budgets (and corruption) skyrocketed to meet the demands for better roads by votes that were no longer content to be stuck in the mud – literally.

How bad is it in South Carolina today? This analysis from FitsNews.com run by controversial Republican blogger Will Folk: “This agency is an absolute disaster incompetent in its operations, corrupt to the core in its leadership and always pushing non-essential projects as it complains about its funding despite its base budget more than doubling over the last six years.”

And, as if right on cue just to prove Folks’ point, last week Attorney General Alan Wilson obtained five indictments for corruption against former DOT employees and their friends.

Now, Folks is not without his critics (us included on some other issues) and he is often guilty of overblown rhetoric but for years he has relentlessly and fearlessly chronicled the abuse at DOT and the politicians who have benefited. Make your own judgment – go to FitsNews.com and search ‘DOT corruption’ but you had better pack a lunch as it’s going to take you a while to get through it all.

Setting aside all of the specific abuses that Folks chronicles, let’s focus on the three big issues: the money, the roads and the reform efforts.

First the money. The S.C. Department of Transportation spends a lot of money – $1.6 billion last year. And, despite recent tough economic times for the state, relatively speaking the DOT has continued to make out like a bandit. According to a recent story in The State newspaper entitled ‘How S.C.’s Leaders Have Failed South Carolinians’ (I strongly encourage you to Google the story and read it) over the last 10 years “Counting federal and state money the state Department of Transportation (spending) … has increased to $1.6 billion from $1 billion, including a $49.9 million increase in money from the state’s general fund.”

This amounts to a 63% increase for the DOT from the 2007-8 budget until today. At the same time, there were huge reductions in other departments: -27% for the Dept. of Health and Environmental Control, – 25% for higher education, -24% in funds for local governments, -10% for K-12 funding, etc. Clearly the highway boys (and girls) have their friends in the legislature who protect them.

Second, the roads. OK, we spend lots of money on roads but look what we get – great roads, right? Wrong – anyone who has driven in our state knows how bad the roads are.

Our roads are literally killing us – S.C. was tied with West Virginia as the state with the deadliest roads – according to last year’s authoritative study by the National Transportation Research Group.

They also found that “throughout South Carolina, 46 % of major roads and highways are in poor condition, a significant increase from 2008 when 32 % of the state’s major roads were rated in poor condition. 20% of South Carolina’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete … (this) costs each S.C. driver as much as $1,250 per year … or $3 billion statewide.”

The roads are so bad that a couple of years ago Pete Selleck, chairman and president of Greenville-based Michelin North America, said South Carolina’s roads are in such bad shape the company might have to consider other locations for expansion. “The roads in this state are a disgrace,” he said.

And all this was before last year’s floods that left massive destruction of our state’s roads and bridges.

So much for good roads and bridges.

Third, the reform. The question is are things going to change? The answer is maybe, possibly, a little, in time … but don’t count on it.

The road bill passed by the legislature this year supposedly had some significant reform provisions. Here’s what Gov. Haley said of the so-called reforms, “A lot of elected officials went home and said, ‘We got you roads. Rah rah!’ You know, ‘Re-elect us. We did a great thing.’ And the truth of the matter is I think we stepped back a decade.”

So much for reform.

But reform efforts continue. Just last week, Sen. Niki Setzler announced that this year’s budget included a mandate to “fund a thorough study of the agencies’ structure, regional offices, outsourcing and money spent by local county transportation committees.”

Sounds great – but the chances are that after they spend a few hundred thousand dollars on this study, the lawmakers who share in the corruption of DOT will ensure that it goes on the shelf (or more likely in the trash can) with all the other studies.

We don’t need more studies; we need more indictments.

More simple math: Corruption + Inaction = More Corruption + More Bad Roads + More Deaths

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By Phil Noble

Contributing Columnist

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform. He can be reached at phil@philnoble.com

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform. He can be reached at phil@philnoble.com

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