If full-scale devolution is the plan there will likely be a one-time repair of the secondary state roads where basically the state will repave the road then turn it immediately to the county or city, but then what? The individual counties will not exactly be flush with case to maintain the thousands of traffic signs, thousands of miles of road striping and repair the thousands of guardrails. The unfortunate thing is that SCDOT always did an excellent job maintaining those roads before the money ran out. There was never anything wrong with the state maintaining these roads, and it worked perfectly until the legislature refused to raise gas or sales taxes to adequate levels to continue to fund these roads. The problem instead that neither the gas tax was indexed to inflation nor were sales taxes increased to adequate levels to fund it. Had the gas tax been indexed to inflation, the rate today would be around 35 cents/gallon. Compare this to Georgia where the state had a lower gas tax, but the gas tax is indexed to inflation in addition to 3-4 cents of sales taxes applied to that total. Currently, Georgia increased their gas taxes to 26 cents per gallon (net rate is 29 cents per gallon) yet gas prices are not dramatically higher. Despite Georgia's higher gas tax, safety improvements are much more poorly maintained in Georgia, and the answer is because the responsibility is just too fragmented.
South Carolina has also always done an excellent job with safety improvements on their secondary state roads. The counties and cities? Very hit and miss. On county roads, warning signs are very sporadic and maintenance is less frequent. Will the counties pick up the slack and maintain the traffic signs, pavement markings and guardrails to the same level as SCDOT did? Probably not. Rest assured that only about five counties in the state will even have the resources to create a proper traffic operations unit within the counties, and at present only Greenville County looks to have standards comparable to the state. The counties will also be on the hook for raising local taxes to pick up the slack. On the table will likely be more sales taxes and definitely higher property taxes. Otherwise, the quality of these roads will probably not improve much declining in many other areas. Why do these roads have to go to the counties? The refusal to raise revenues to adequate levels is the only excuse being given. While cooperatives seem like good ideas, there is no reason to devolve these roads to the counties. Raise the taxes to a proper 30-35 cents per gallon or raise sales taxes to knock off 5-10 cents per gallon including an internet sales tax and the honey jar of funds will again flow. While corruption does exist in the agency, that is not necessarily a justification to transfer roads to a local level. It is like correlating passing on a double yellow line to speeding.
- JOINT OWNERSHIP OF SECONDARY ROADS: Retain state maintenance and ownership of secondary system, but transfer construction funding to the counties and cities. The South Carolina Association of Counties (SCAC) supports this option.
- DEVELOP REGIONAL/STATEWIDE MAINTENANCE COOPERATIVE: Develop statewide or regional cooperatives that handle maintenance on behalf of local agencies operating independent of SCDOT. This would mean that county road routine maintenance would be abolished, but construction funding would still transfer to the local level. Maintenance would instead be handled by either an interlocal statewide cooperative or cooperatives based on the state's planning regions per the Regional Roads Plan discussed on this blog.
- TRAFFIC CONTROL COOPERATIVE (INTERLOCAL/SCDOT): Transfer the secondary roads themselves to the counties and cities, but have either SCDOT or a statewide traffic operations cooperative retain authority to supervise and maintain traffic control: this would also mean that local agencies would no longer maintain traffic control directly but would otherwise gain full authority to both construct and maintain roads.
- SCDOT MAINTENANCE CONTRACTS: Permit all counties and cities to contract part or all routine maintenance of their own roads with SCDOT at their own expense. This means that any county using their own funding could transfer a portion or all of their local responsibility to SCDOT without requiring any additional state funding making SCDOT a cooperative for local agencies. Note that this option is not as stable long-term as other options and may be viewed as a "stepping stone to full devolution". If so, options 1-3 are better solutions. However, SCDOT could use this method as a means to transition secondary roads, county roads and city streets over to an interagency cooperative system.
It is hoped that if there is any devolution effort that it primarily involves only the most local of roadways. Preferably at least 35%-40% of South Carolina's road system per Rep. Simrill's plan should remain under state control, but that ratio should be closer to 50% (a reduction of approximately 8,000 miles). Doing this leaves not only at least part of the secondary system intact, but it also keeps most or all of the federal eligible roads under state control as well as a few local connecting roads. At present, the vast majority of federal-aid roads are under the jurisdiction of SCDOT, but a few are currently under local control. However, in any devolution strategy options from the list above should be applied to both the roads transferred to the counties/cities and to existing county/municipal roads.
Realistically, unless the state highway system is going to be scaled back to the point that even primary routes are being turned back, any gas tax funds going to the counties are going to strain the state's road budget. At present, the counties should not have been receiving any state gas tax money since they maintain such a small amount of roads. Representative Simrill needs to clarify just how much is actually going to the counties in terms of road responsibility. The truth is that if the counties are taking on more responsibility, it is going to reduce the quality of what they already maintain. Only 1/3 of the counties in South Carolina are financially or structurally prepared to take on more roads. He is also not offering any plan to allow counties to pay SCDOT to maintain their roads in those counties that are not.
Robert Croom in the article stated that the states do not have a history of following through with promised funding. Indeed, counties and cities typically must raise their own revenue sources in lieu of depending on the state. As of 2014, Georgia only provides 11% of their state highway budget to counties and Alabama only provides 20%, but both states have also pushed local option sales taxes as a way to raise local revenues. Both states also have much smaller state road systems. If SCDOT is going to continue to maintain 1/3 of the highway system, the most counties can expect is an additional 1-2% of the gas tax. That is not enough to do anything, and if the state provides more it will not be enough to maintain roads without a huge stateside revenue increase. This increase in local control reduces accountability and ultimately is less efficient. It raises costs on local taxpayers for lower quality services. Local revenue sources will have to be raised substantially, and even then it is no guarantee that local agencies will do as good of a job as the state does on routine maintenance.
What will be offered at first will seem like a good deal for counties, but ultimately the state will shift a majority of state funding to fund the state highway system leaving counties on the hook to handle most of the financial responsibility. Unless the counties and cities want to maintain 90% or more of the road system, they should not expect adequate funding. This is even a risk with Option 4 discussed above since these kinds of programs usually only lasted 20-30 years as was the case with Alabama and Maryland.