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Simrill-led panel on S.C. road funding convenes

The chairman of the South Carolina House road-funding committee says he believes his panel will ultimately recommend a “hybrid” bill of funding measures that will pay for road repairs using a combination of sources but not increases to the gas tax alone.

State Rep. Gary Simrill, a Rock Hill Republican who was appointed last week to head a special House committee to recommend road-funding legislation and legislation to better manage the state Department of Transportation, told The Greenville News that while everything is on the table, the gas tax is no longer capable of supporting the state’s needs.

“Cars are more efficient now,” he said. “People have hybrid cars now. People are going to electric cars now. If your dependency is on a diminishing return, which is what the gas tax is, you’re going to be left out. We have to look beyond that and figure out other ways to pay for roads.”

Simrill’s panel starts work Tuesday with presentations by S.C. DOT, the Department of Revenue and the state Treasurer’s office.

The panel is expected to issue its recommendations by the time lawmakers return to work in January for a new session.

Gov. Nikki Haley has long threatened a veto of any gas tax increase and said she will unveil her plan to fund roads in January, two months after voters go to the polls to choose between re-electing her or one of her challengers, who include Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat, and Tom Ervin, a former judge who describes himself as an independent Republican.

The state faces a shortfall in infrastructure funding of $42 billion until 2040, acccording to a DOT draft report last month. The state operates the fourth largest state-maintained highway system in the nation and relies on a state gas tax that is among the nation’s lowest and has not been raised since 1987.

The state Senate set road funding as a priority earlier this year but adjourned without even debating the legislation.

Simrill said while future meetings will decide what the panel wants to do to fund infrastructure needs, he expects the final product will be a combination.

“I think at the end of the day, on the revenue side, you’re going to see a hybrid version,” he said. “You’re going to see more baseline money going into road paving. You’ll look at some different tax portions that could go. If you say we’re going to rely on gas tax only and the increasing of the gas tax, it will not meet the threshold of what the need is,” he said.

Simrill said he also wants to see what South Carolina’s neighboring states do to address funding growth on their highways.

He said everything is on the table, too, when it comes to discussion of managing highway funding and how DOT is governed. A provision in the law passed in 2007, which allows the governor to appoint a secretary of transportation to direct DOT, sunsets next year if lawmakers do not vote to continue it.

“What we want is more communication between locals and DOT,” he said. “We want a consensus-building team, not a confusion-building team. Those are aspects we need to talk to DOT about. And I think that really comes first before you say, ‘Raise a tax.’”

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