Special to CEG
The South Carolina General Assembly funds and sets highway policy. The South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) administers that policy. Mile for mile, South Carolina is the lowest funded state highway system in the nation. This has serious implications for the safety of the state’s roads.
How is South Carolina funded and where does the money come from to upgrade and maintain the state highway system?
State vs. Local
Control of Highways
Every state in the nation has a highway agency. These agencies hold varying degrees of responsibility for the construction and maintenance of public highways.
For example, in West Virginia, 93 percent of all public roads are state-controlled, while in Michigan, only 8 percent of the roads are under state control. Nationally, 20 percent of all public roads are state-controlled. County or municipal government locally controls 80 percent of the roads across America.
Over the years, the South Carolina General Assembly has placed a greater percentage of roads in the state highway system than other states where most roads are maintained by counties or municipalities.
In South Carolina, 65 percent of the road miles are state-controlled and 35 percent are locally controlled. This means that the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) controls and maintains about three times the average number of state roads in proportion to the overall system.
In South Carolina, state and local highway taxes are well below the national and regional averages. The per capita highway tax load (taxes paid per citizen to fund state highways) in South Carolina is one of the lowest in the nation despite SCDOT’s triple level of responsibility.
In 1970, highway funding represented 17 percent of the state budget. Today, it represents 6 percent. The state has limited funds for making safety improvements on roads that do not qualify for federal highway funds.
With most roads under the control of a central agency, the legislature has created the opportunity for uniform highway design and lower overhead costs. But these advantages assume that state government will provide funding consistent with the agency’s responsibilities. This has not been the case.
In fact, South Carolina highway funding is 28 percent below that of the 49th state.
Motor Fuel Tax
South Carolina depends almost solely on the motor fuel tax for highway funding. The tax has not been adjusted since 1987, thereby forcing SCDOT to pay for 2001 projects with 1987 dollars.
At 16 cents per gallon, the fuel tax is an excise tax collected on a per-gallon basis. The only way to increase fuel tax revenues is to simply put more vehicles on the road. This creates even greater needs for highway construction and maintenance. Because of this, the fuel tax is considered a regressive source of funding.
Unlike the state sales tax, when gas prices go up, fuel tax revenues usually go down. Improved fuel efficiency also causes fuel tax collections to drop (12 percent in the past 10 years due to improved efficiency).
State highway funding dropped more than $1 million in Fiscal Year 2000 -2001 due to the increase in gas prices in the first two quarters of 2001.
The SC motor fuel tax is the fifth lowest in the nation. It has remained flat while the cost index has grown 78 percent, the Consumer Price Index has grown 51 percent, and traffic has grown 58 percent.
Additionally, SCDOT does not receive the full 16 cents per gallon, since the SC General Assembly diverts a small percentage of the tax to other agencies and programs to be used for non-highway projects.
In neighboring states, 47 percent of state highway funding is derived from sources other than fuel taxes. In South Carolina, only 5 percent comes from other sources.
The federal government imposes an 18 cents per gallon fuel tax across the United States.
These dollars are collected in each state, sent to Washington, and returned to the states in the form of federal aid for highways. Each year, Congress appropriates a set amount for each state. These funds may be used to upgrade highways and bridges of national significance. Each state is required to match federal highway funds with state or local funds.
Federal dollars are primarily used for construction, while state dollars are used for maintenance. That’s why the state can build new bridges, connectors, and interstate highways, but cannot properly perform routine maintenance of state roads.
There is no state budget allocated to providing federal match requirements, meaning SCDOT must use its dwindling state maintenance revenues for meeting those requirements.
In South Carolina, about 40 percent of the state-controlled highways are eligible for federal highway funds. The other 60 percent must be maintained and improved with state dollars alone.
The match ratio is generally 80 percent federal and 20 percent state. As highway projects are completed, SCDOT must pay all expenses, then seek 80 percent reimbursement from the Federal Highway Administration.
An example of this can be found in the wildflower program where fees from SCDOT “Keep South Carolina Beautiful” license tags are used to match federal highway beautification funds.
Due to the South Carolina Congressional delegation, the state has seen a 100-percent increase in federal funds over the past five years, allowing South Carolina to pursue an aggressive program of federally-eligible projects on the state’s interstate and primary highways.
South Carolina has accelerated that program even further by leveraging future federal dollars to issue construction bonds at today’s lucrative rates. This financing arrangement will allow South Carolina to build 27 years’ worth of projects in just seven years.
An unfortunate side-effect of increased federal funding is that South Carolina’s federal match requirement also has grown 100 percent over the past five years. This means that the state’s highway maintenance budget has been slashed to shift state dollars to meet the match requirement.
The majority of miles in the system (60 percent) are now being patched and maintained on a bare bones budget. Routine pothole patching is being performed on roads that should have been repaved years ago.
Narrow, two-lane roads are statistically the most dangerous highways in America. Safety on these roads can be enhanced through engineering design improvements and proper maintenance. In South Carolina, the secondary highway system is dangerously under-funded.
South Carolina currently has the second highest highway fatality rate in the nation. Most of its secondary roads were built in the middle of the last century. They do not meet today’s demands. Consequently, more than 50 percent of South Carolina’s speeding-related deaths occur on two-lane secondary roads.
More than 90 percent of all crashes occur on-those roads, not the interstates. The secondary roads, which are the most severely under-funded, are the deadliest highways in the state.
The SCDOT does not have a state-funded construction program to make safety improvements to the secondary highway system, whose condition is rapidly deteriorating. This situation hurts efforts to reduce highway fatalities across the state.
The SCDOT also has limited funds for making safety improvements on roads that do not qualify for federal highway funds.
An average of three people die on South Carolina roads every day.
Scientific studies show that widening a road lane by 1 ft. (.3 m) can reduce accidents by 12 percent, and that widening road shoulders can reduce fatalities by 20 percent.
Approximately one-third of all highway fatalities in South Carolina occur when vehicles leave the road and hit fixed objects such as trees and embankments. This number could be greatly reduced through the funding of engineering improvements, according to the study.
The lack of turn lanes in the state is a major cause of rear-end collisions .
SCDOT has been forced to abandon its 25,000-mi. (40,233 km) secondary road resurfacing program. The recommended cycle for resurfacing (repaving) roads is 10 to 15 years. The system will deteriorate exponentially if this continues.
A recent report concluded that South Carolina motorists are spending $500 million per year in vehicle repairs as the result of poor road conditions.
Nearly one-third of South Carolina’s primary and interstate highways are now in poor or mediocre condition.
More than half of secondary roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
There has been a 25-percent increase in the number of deficient bridges in South Carolina since 1999. One out of every four bridges now falls in this category.
Solely maintained by fuel tax revenues, the State of South Carolina owns 41,518 road miles (66,816 km); 8,205 bridges, 34 rest areas and welcome centers, 23 million ft. of curb and gutter; more than 1.2 million driveways; 81,300 mi. (130,839 km) of ditches, 75,000 shoulder mi. (120,700 km) of mowing; more than 20 million mi. (32 million km) of sidewalks; and 1,162 mi. (1,870 km) of guardrail.
SCDOT reportedly is a good steward of revenues. An independent study, by Dr. David Hartgen of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, ranks SCDOT number three in the nation in efficiency.
SCDOT consistently ranks in the top four in this annual study. The agency has the fewest employees per mile and the lowest administrative overhead of any DOT in the nation.
According to SCDOT, state highway funding should be indexed to adjust for inflation, and funding per mile should be at least the same as for other states such as South Carolina, for which the majority of public roads are under state control.
The state’s highways should be resurfaced, on average, every 12 years. Funding should be based on this standard.
A state-funded program should be created to make safety upgrades on the state’s most dangerous roads that do not qualify for federal funding. This will reduce the highway fatality rate, claimed SCDOT.
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