South Carolina has the nation’s fourth-largest state-owned transportation network, but a labyrinthine project-upgrade priority system has hampered the state Dept. of Transportation’s ability to keep roads and bridges from worsening over the past decade, state auditors and Transportation Secretary Christy Hall testified on April 7.

The state General Assembly’s audit evaluated SCDOT’s management of 41,000 miles of roads and 8,436 bridges—work that was affected by a 2007 agency restructuring that mandated new ways to prioritize projects. Since 2008, it found 54% of South Carolina’s primary roads rated in poor condition, up from 31%. Similar increases were recorded for secondary roads. The audit criticized apparent inconsistencies in how the DOT prioritizes projects and called for a more transparent process organized around a central ranking list.

Hall, a longtime SCDOT veteran who was confirmed as agency chief in January, countered that the complexity of ranking projects, particularly given the variety of funding sources involved, makes a single statewide priority list impractical. In testimony, Hall reinforced her point, displaying a 55-ft-long list of more than 1,500 road and bridge projects. While conceding that SCDOT’s project-ranking process is in compliance with the 2007 rules, she said the agency is taking steps to make the list more transparent and accessible to the public.

The audit’s findings were released as South Carolina legislators consider a plan that could direct as much as $400 million annually to roads and bridges. The plan does not include any increase to the state’s 16.75¢-per-gallon gas tax, unchanged since 1989, or add new, alternative revenue sources, as recommended by the audit. The state typically ranks last among states in per capita transportation spending.

Hall agreed with the audit’s finding that SCDOT’s unique governance structure—with a legislature-appointed commission overseeing an agency headed by a gubernatorial appointee—“creates confusion and undermines the authority of both.” The audit also faulted the commission for recent changes, including required prior approval to conduct and report investigations, that curtail the independence of internal agency auditors.

Hall said in a statement that continuing with the existing governance structure will make it “nearly impossible to set clear priorities, instill effective accountability and correctly answer the question of where the buck stops for the organization.”