Accountability still missing at SC highway department

The state Department of Transportation is Exhibit A for problems that arise when authority and accountability cross multiple lines.

Its recent cash-flow problems have prompted another round of calls for change at the agency. But accountability won't be found until the agency is fundamentally -- not cosmetically -- restructured.

In 2007, after a Legislative Audit Council inquiry found systemic, widespread problems, we were told we got reform. The agency's executive director became part of the governor's Cabinet and was put in charge of day-to-day operations. But the Transportation Commission, whose members are appointed by legislators from each of the state's congressional districts, still sets the policy direction for the agency and chooses the projects to pursue.

Where do we turn to find out why the agency fell millions of dollars behind in paying contractors and paying back the state Infrastructure Bank, resulting in having to get a $52 million advance from the federal government? The agency's director, Robert St. Onge? Gov. Nikki Haley? The Transportation Commission? The legislators who appointed the commissioners?

State Sen. Larry Grooms, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, plans a legislative review of the agency's spending. Grooms told The (Charleston) Post and Courier that he will appoint an investigative subcommittee. An introductory hearing on the topic is set for Sept. 8.

Rep. Chip Limehouse of Charleston said the state was spending $1 million on new internal auditing at the agency with reports going to the commission. Legislators might also need to receive the updates, Limehouse said.

So where does the governor, who hires the head of the agency, fit into this?

Haley said recently that the department needed to be restructured. The agency must build a cash reserve, and accounting and engineering officials must collaborate better.

We have no specifics from the governor's office yet.

In the meantime, agency officials say the money problems are under control. It said $49 million had been sent to the comptroller general's office for processing for payments to contractors. That gets the agency back to paying contractors within 30 working days. More than 400 payments had been made. The agency spent $125 million in August.

About $70 million from state gas tax revenue and Federal Highway Administration reimbursements are expected to come in during the first two weeks of September.

It also has deferred about $24 million in projects through September.

This agency is too big and too important to remain adrift. If the 2007 effort didn't get the job done, let's do it now.