SCDOT structure, no priority list part of the agency problem

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By Stan Welch

In a series of articles on the South Carolina Department of Transportation, its strong points and weaknesses, as revealed by an independent audit, several points have come to the fore.

The audit focused on efficiency, the DOT’s failure to prioritize projects appropriately, and mis-allocation of funds, in terms of serving the state’s overall infrastructure needs. One aspect of those mis-allocations is the prioritization of funds. The audit states clearly that even as the state’s roads suffered severe deterioration from 2008 to 2014, more emphasis was put on adding new miles to the state inventory, rather than repairing and maintaining existing roads.

The audit also takes DOT to task for failing to have one single list of projects encompassing all sorts of projects, large and small. DOT also advances lower ranked projects over higher ranked projects without any written justification, and is unable to provide the methodology by which such choices were made. In addition, priorities, once set, are seldom reviewed to determine if needs or conditions have changed enough to warrant a review of the priorities.

But the one underlying cause of these problems lies in the very structure of the SCDOT itself.

The DOT, in terms of supervision and oversight authority, resembles a two headed turtle, with each head going in a different direction. South Carolina, according to the study, is the only state which has two entities designated as the governing authority.

According to the report, the presence of a Highway Commission coupled with a department head who is appointed by the Governor is unique among other states, is cumbersome, and hinders accountability. Compounding the problem is the fact that state law leaves the question of the ultimate authority at the DOT unanswered.

Elsewhere in the report, the issue of prioritizing projects, especially in terms of new construction versus maintenance projects, is clearly defined as a major problem. That problem has its origins in the muddled question of authority, with the result that an inordinate amount of funding is spent on constructing new roads, often with more of a political reason than an engineering one.

The report further states that once priorities are set, they are often changed or ignored, again with little or no rational basis for the decision. The matter of prioritization was formally addressed by the General Assembly in Act 114, but political considerations and flawed engineering has severely impacted compliance with that act.

As questions of serious infrastructure problems in the state have continued to arise ( this audit was conducted prior to the severe flooding in the midlands and coastal areas of the state in the last two years) a demand for a restructuring of the DOT have arisen as well. The audit offers three recommendations for the General Assembly’s consideration.

One such proposal is to amend state law to abolish the Transportation Commission altogether and designate the Secretary of Transportation as the head of the SCDOT. The second method would be to allow the Governor or the Transportation Commission to appoint members of the Commission. Selection by a Commission appointed by the Governor is the method currently used by DHEC and the SCDNR.

The last recommendation would redefine the role of the Commission, significantly reducing its policy making authority, but strengthening its oversight responsibilities.

Regardless of the method adopted, the report states strongly that one of the heads of the turtle must be removed.