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The county delegation: Sen. Ronnie Sabb, left, Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, Rep. Carl Anderson and Rep. Lee Hewitt.
Charles Swenson/Coastal Observer

Legislature: Goldfinch says environmentalists are roadblock to infrastructure

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

State Sen. Stephen Goldfinch thinks the legislature will find money to build and repair roads in South Carolina. But that will still leave one big hurdle, he said: environmentalists.

“The real impediment in South Carolina, what we can’t fix right now is environmental meddling in those roads,” he told local officials and business leaders at a forum held by the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and Coastal Carolina Association of Realtors last week. “That is a serious, serious problem.”

The legislature last year approved a $4 billion spending plan over a decade to improve roads and bridges. “We will do a lot with bridges. We will do very little with roads,” state Sen. Ronnie Sabb said. The state Department of Transportation says it needs $1.5 billion a year to meet the state’s infrastructure needs. “It’s one of the most compelling issues,” said Sabb, a Democrat from Greeleyville who represents the western part of Georgetown County.

Goldfinch, a Murrells Inlet Republican, said the county legislative delegation agrees new and better roads are needed. The widening of Highway 521 from Georgetown to Interstate 95 at Manning has been a local priority for 40 years.

“We don’t have enough infrastructure to support what we have and we don’t have enough infrastructure to support what we need,” Goldfinch said. The state needs to come up with additional funds and implement reforms at DOT, he said. He believes that can happen. “It will bottleneck at the end of the day with one environmentalist standing in the way,” Goldfinch said.

He chairs the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study’s policy committee, which allocates DOT funds to projects in the region. Opposition from environmental groups to such projects as Interstate 73 and a new crossing of the Intracoastal Waterway at Bucksport are a source of frustration to local and state officials who serve on the committee.

The problem, Goldfinch said, is that those projects are delayed in court. “They can file a form with a nominal fee and stop a $100 million road project in its tracks,” he said. “One person can do that.”

“I hope you’ll be open to listening to the facts,” Amy Armstrong, head of the S.C. Environmental Law Project, said from a table at the back of the room. She said afterward that she would meet with Goldfinch to talk about the issue.

He wants the state to require that people who challenge road projects post a bond. “That’s the only fair thing to do,” he said.

Sabb, who like Goldfinch is an attorney, agreed the system needs to change, but disagreed that the state should try to silence critics by requiring a bond “in order to have their voice heard.”

Asked about what the state could do to address sea level rise, Goldfinch said the climate-change debate is an economic issue. “I think it’s easy for us who live in nice houses at the beach to sit around and pontificate about the one one-hundredth of a degree Fahrenheit that human interaction may have to do with the environment while we have poor people across this country, across this world and right here in this district that don’t have that luxury,” he said.

He would like to widen the array of energy sources and phase out fossil fuels, but not at the expense of what he called “the poor mom in Hemingway that needs to get to work today and needs to heat her house today.”

Rep. Lee Hewitt, a Murrells Inlet Republican and the newest member of the county delegation, wants the state to define “sustainable funding” for beach nourishment projects. He said the state law also needs to change to allow testing of other methods of stabilizing the beach and dunes.

Lawmakers also said education will be a key issue, although Goldfinch said progress will be slow. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that funding doesn’t meet the constitution’s mandate for “minimally adequate” education. “It is a real truth that where you live determines the resources that come to your education system,” Sabb said.

As if to underscore that point, Rep. Carl Anderson, a Georgetown Democrat, said the county was fortunate. “We’re at the top of the list when it comes to education,” he said.

Education, said Hewitt, “is one of the most important discussions we’ll be having this year.”

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