Category Archives: Infrastructure

Why should we sell Santee Cooper, especially now?

Santee Cooper

Today’s story in The State told us that lawmakers want the governor to hold up a bit and loop them in on talks about selling Santee Cooper.

What they did not address, at least to my satisfaction, is the larger question: Why sell Santee Cooper?

In the normal course of things, it seems an idea worth exploring: Why should the state operate a utility, now, in the 21st century? We’ve pretty much made it through the rural electrification phase of our development.

But in the context of the current scandal over the nuclear plant fiasco, it makes less sense. To me, anyway.

I mean, isn’t everybody kind of ticked off that Santee Cooper — and SCANA — were out of control on this thing?

Wouldn’t the natural reaction under such circumstances be to think, “Hey, we own Santee Cooper. Since we own it, we can get it under control.” If the current laws and regulations don’t allow for that kind of control — and it appears they don’t — then change the laws and regulations.

But don’t sell it off to some out-of-state conglomerate that won’t give a damn what we want the utility to do and to be.

Isn’t there something kind of irresponsible in state officials wanting to wash their hands of the utility at this particular moment? Isn’t this kind of a backwards reaction?

There’s probably a flaw in my thinking on this that is obvious to everybody but me. Please, somebody explain it to me…

Spot of good news: My neighborhood isn’t going to be demolished for a hyperspace bypass

Here’s the notice that was brought to my attention — not by the government, but by my daughter — on the last day of public comment.

Here’s the notice that was brought to my attention — not by the government, but by my daughter — on the last day of public comment.

So Donald Trump is still president, North Korea just fired a missile over Japan, and Harvey is still ripping up and flooding the Gulf Coast.

So, lots of bad news.

But at least there’s this:

The S.C. Department of Transportation has dropped a plan to build a bypass to unsnarl “Malfunction Junction” that would have caused up to 236 West Columbia homes to be razed.

State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said he received a letter about the change from the department Tuesday morning.

“This is a tremendous victory for us,” he said. “And this was a community effort.”

The bypass was one of several options being considered by the DOT to alleviate congestion at the junction of I-20, I-26 and I-126. It would have diverted traffic away from the intersection, but the bypass also would have cut through several West Columbia neighborhoods including Quail Hollow and River’s Edge….

I live in Quail Hollow. And while the abandoned route might not have technically gone through my living room, it would have run behind the houses directly across the street from me, and would have blocked me from the only way out of my neighborhood other than swimming across the Saluda River.

It would have been the worst deal possible: My property value would have been destroyed, and I wouldn’t have gotten paid for it because they didn’t necessarily have to buy my house. And my peaceful, semi-sylvan neighborhood — deer sometimes wander onto our lot — would have become utter, roaring chaos, with an interstate directly in front of the house, less than 100 feet away (as near as I could tell from the wholly inadequate maps provided by DOT).

As you’ll recall, I learned about this plan on the last day of public comments last fall, after having received ZERO notification from the state that my neighborhood was potentially to be sacrificed to fix Malfunction Junction, a problem that has never bothered me even though it’s only about a mile from my house.

We found ourselves in a situation that was almost, but not quite, entirely like the one Arthur Dent faced in the first chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Did I ever tell you about the public meeting DOT finally held for my neighbors and me after we DID find out about it on that last day of public comment? Official after official claimed that we should have known sooner — after all, the plans had been on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard.” More or less.

Finally, this one woman stood up and faced the truth, and admitted that yeah, they had screwed up big-time by not actually notifying us. Which was nice. I guess she had drawn the short straw on being the “good cop.”

Anyway, I want to thank my Senator, Nikki Setzler, and my representative, Micah Caskey (although Micah says modestly that it was really Nikki) for standing up and raising hell about the deal. I think it probably helped even though the DOT people claimed at the public meeting that resistance would be useless, that political considerations would play no role, that the decision would be made by federal officials entirely on the basis of objective data.

Low demand? I don’t like the sound of THAT…

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A lot of folks are reacting in a lot of ways — mostly negative — to the decision by SCANA and Santee Cooper to abandon their nuclear power project.

We’ve heard a good bit about the $9 billion already spent, the $1.4 billion in rate increases, and all the folks whose jobs depended on the continuation of the project.

But I’d like to see more on one aspect of the decision: The explanation that the utilities bailed because power demand isn’t turning out to be as great as projected.

Is it that the original projections were just entirely unrealistic? Or were the projections sensible at the time, but then rendered inaccurate by the economic collapse of 2008? In which case, assuming we ever fully recover from that, maybe we go back to the kind of growth that was originally projected…

Another way to put it: Is weakened demand a temporary condition, or the New Normal?

I don’t know. I just know that when I hear “low demand,” like the characters on “Seinfeld” reacting to the news that their new shower heads were “low-flow,” I don’t like the sound of that.

I mean, that can’t be good, can it? Doesn’t less power demand track closely with less economic growth? A lot of us have had to adjust to lowered economic expectations in the last few years. News like this seems to tell us, Get used to that; it’s not getting better.

Or does it? I’d like to know more about this. In the meantime, I don’t like the sound of it…

low flow

Micah Caskey’s thoughtful words on gas tax bill

When I first met Micah Caskey last year, I was still toying with the idea of running for the House seat he was seeking. My interview with him put that out of my head, I was so impressed with him. I agreed with him on so many things, and was so impressed by the thoughtful way he approached every issue even when I didn’t agree, that it occurred to me that if I did run against him, I might be tempted to vote for him anyway.

The statement he posted on Facebook regarding the roads bill just passed over the governor’s veto provides a sample of what I’m talking about. When I posted in passing about him and the bill yesterday, I had not yet seen this.

I’m not sure if this is the same statement he made on the floor of the House yesterday, but whatever he said there also made an impression, judging by multiple Tweets from  and , reporters for The State.

An example:

As I said, an impression was made.

Here’s what he said on Facebook:

The #1 issue in South Carolina is improving our state’s transportation infrastructure. Our roads are in terrible condition and we’ve got to fix them.

Micah Caskey

Micah Caskey

I want to address my position on the roads. This is a rather long post, but I think it’s important that I share where I stand on the issue. I ran for office promising folks that I would call the balls and strikes as I saw them, even if it wasn’t politically popular.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to pay the piper. It’s time to raise our state’s gas tax.

Sadly, the Governor hasn’t had anything helpful to say about fixing the roads. Instead of drawing a roadmap for how things can be improved, he’s chosen to do what we’ve come to expect from career politicians:

1. Put head in the sand
2. Yell “CONSERVATIVE!”
3. Hope nobody pays attention to reality

In the absence of Executive Branch leadership, the task of fixing roads has been taken up by the Legislative Branch. Unfortunately, crafting the law to fix the roads in the General Assembly as been incredibly contentious. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen and everybody thinks his or her solution is best.

The 124 members of the S.C. House gave it our best shot in House Bill #3516. And, as is their custom, the 46-member S.C. Senate returned the House bill will something that looked very different. (To their credit, the Senate did at least manage to break from their tradition of not passing a roads bill out at all.)

When the House and the Senate don’t agree on versions of a bill, the parliamentary rules require there to be a “Conference Committee”, made up of 3 members from each body, to sit together and negotiate a compromise.

If you think of each body’s initial bill as a compromise from within that respective body (you need a majority vote to get out of the body, after all), the Conference Committee’s version is a Compromise of Compromises.

An ugly baby, to be sure.

I have broken down the Conference Committee version of H.3516 below. Like me, there’s probably a lot you don’t like about it. But, ultimately, the two must-haves (for me to vote for it) are there:

1. Gas tax money goes ONLY to roads (no sidewalks, parks, etc.)

2. There is reform in governance at DOT so that citizens can rightfully hold the Governor accountable for the performance of his agency.

This bill has both. (1) All new revenue must go into the Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund for existing infrastructure improvement only. (2) The Governor directly appoints all of the DOT Commissioners, with approval by the entire General Assembly — not just the Senate — and can remove a Commissioner at-will, on his own.

In truth, I think we need to eliminate the DOT Commission entirely and elevate the Secretary of Transportation to a Cabinet seat, but my view is a minority view in the 170-member General Assembly (we lost an amendment vote to do that in the House 33-84). Nevertheless, I think the Conference Committee version gives citizens the ability to hold the Governor accountable when the Commissioners he appoints stray from his priorities.

South Carolina deserves action. If past Governors or General Assemblies had acted in the past, we wouldn’t be in this position. However, since we can’t go back in time, our choice is simplified.

I don’t think raising taxes is a good answer, but I also see it as the only realistic answer for this problem. There’s no magic roads fairy coming to fix this. Waiting on the ‘perfect’ answer doesn’t work in the military, and it doesn’t work here.

I will vote to adopt the Conference Committee Report, and if the Governor chooses to put his own career ahead of South Carolina’s best interest, I’ll vote to override his veto.

Certainly don’t let me get in the way of your government-hating. I encourage you to be skeptical. I implore you to scrutinize SCDOT more than ever. I certainly will. Whether through the Legislative Audit Council, Inspectors General, or the Legislative Oversight Committee, I will be working to ensure SCDOT delivers a better investment return of tax dollars than they have in the past. I invite you to put your energy toward the same.

From where we are today, a gas tax increase is the only responsible solution.

-Micah

—-

Conference Report on Roads Bill
GOVERNANCE AND REFORM

● Provides real accountability and transparency at the Department of Transportation (public records, mandated meetings, ethical requirements for commissioners)

● Gives Governor complete control of the Commission with a clear line of authority and at-will removal

● Highway Commission organized to reflect regional representation with 7 Congressional districts and 2 statewide at-large members appointed by the Governor (adds 1 member to current structure)

● Requires General Assembly, not just the S.C. Senate, to approve all 9 Highway Commission appointees

● Strengthens DOT’s control over project authorization and financial decisions by the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank
FUNDING

● Creates a long-term and sustainable funding stream by increasing the motor fuel user fee by 2 cents/gallon over the next 6 years, not exceeding 12 cents/gallon

● Safeguards taxpayers from future automatic tax increases by not indexing for inflation

● Protects SC taxpayers from continuing to solely foot the bill for infrastructure repair by not using General Fund dollars and captures 30% of the motor fuel user fee revenue from out-of-state motorists

● Creates an Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund to ensure all new revenue collected from the motor fuel user fee is used only for existing infrastructure needs

● Does not increase or change fees for South Carolina driver’s license applications or renewals

● Increases funding for County Transportation Committees targeted to repair rural and secondary roads

● Captures revenue from alternative energy motorists by creating a biennial registration fee for all hybrid and electric vehicles

● Established a road use fee to capture revenue from out of state truckers

● Raises the cap on motor vehicle sales tax to $500 and creates a $250 out of state maintenance fee

● Incentivizes road construction industry to return to SC with responsible infrastructure investment

● Provides $640 million in new annual revenue for infrastructure maintenance needs when fully implemented

TAX RELIEF

● Includes responsible tax relief to offset the user fee increase for South Carolina residents

● Offers a refundable income tax credit equal to the motor fuel user fee increase that must be reauthorized prior to 2023

● Enhances already existing College Tuition Tax Credit for every South Carolina tuition-payer to enhance workforce development

● Contains a non-refundable Low Income Tax Credit for working families (not federal model)

● Increases the maximum income tax credit from $210 to $350 for dual income household joint filers

● Reduces SC manufacturers property tax burden by $35 million using a phased-in approach over 6 years

I’m proud he’s my representative. We need a lot more like him. Keep up the good work, Micah!

What has government ever done for us?

The New York Times decided to have a bit of fun with the upcoming Brexit vote. Noting that a lot of Britons can be heard saying, “What has Europe ever done for us?,” the NYT’s editors harked back to the classic Monty Python bit in which a group of first-century Palestinian revolutionaries indignantly ask the same about the Romans.

Only to come up with a LONG list of examples, causing their leader, played by John Cleese, to rephrase his question:

But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Good stuff.

But of course, whenever I see the clip, I hear the voices of all the people who insist that government is the problem, not the solution.

Unfortunately, after years of being governed by folks like that — or at least, folks who walk in fear of the Grover Norquists of the world — many of the blessings of a civilized government are falling apart. Thereby putting us in a situation in which government actually is doing less of what it should do for us, or at least doing it less well. Which convinces more people that government is no damn’ good, which causes more such people to be elected, and so forth…

Anyway, that’s sort of what my friends over at The State are on about with their new series, “How SC’s leaders have failed South Carolinians.”

And they have failed us. Because if our elected officials can’t manage to keep the basic functions of government up and running properly, what indeed have the Romans ever done for us?

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First, small part of first penny project opens

Well, that was quick. Seems like I just saw them starting on this. At the same time, I guess I should say it’s about time, and when will you finish? — I first heard about plans to do this at least 10 years ago, as part of the general pitch about the Innovista.

The first piece of the project to turn Greene Street into a pedestrian-friendly corridor reaching down to the river is now open to use. Of course, there’s not much to see until the whole thing is done:

The initial phase of the Innovista project, which will eventually link the University of South Carolina campus to Columbia’s riverfront, has opened to vehicular and pedestrian traffic, according to Swansea-based contractor LAD Corp.

The project is part of the first major construction to use the Richland County’s penny sales tax program, which was designed for transportation improvements. The Greene Street transformation has been in the works for the last decade.

The $10 million first phase involves a section of Greene Street between Assembly and Park streets, running between the Koger Center and USC’s Darla Moore School of Business….

So on the one hand, we have the scandal over the penny revenues, the full scope of which we have yet to know.

On the other, we have one small, concrete thing having been partly accomplished.

This raises the question — so… How’s it coming on developing a riverside park for the other end of this?

Time to think more broadly about infrastructure?

That’s what the Conservation Voters of SC think:

Dear Conservation Voter,

The extraordinary weather we’ve just experienced tested our resilience and our strength as South Carolinians. The pictures of waves crashing over Charleston’s battery and the flooding in Columbia make me think that it’s time to enlarge our conversations about infrastructure. When state elected leaders talk about how to fund the repair of roads and bridges, we should also talk about how to invest in resilient infrastructure.
Not only do we need to invest in mitigation and adaptation plans to reduce the impacts of rising sea levels along our coast, but we also have challenges with stormwater and dam safety, and concerns about the integrity of Pinewood and other waste sites when exposed to extreme weather.
Before we begin those conversations, we are sending a special thank you to our first responders, elected officials, and to all who in one way or another extended a helping hand over the weekend. Help the recovery efforts, with a donation through the Central Carolina Community Foundation, of if you are close to Columbia, sign up to volunteer through the United Way.

Ann Timberlake, Executive Director

We might start with Gill’s Creek.

Or maybe the 800-million-ton gorilla hovering over us all, Lake Murray. We beefed up the dam a few years back, but still had to open the floodgates and cause tremendous flooding downstream. I saw a story Since I live a block from the Saluda, I’d like as many reassurances as you can give me…