South Carolina’s roads are in rotten shape — pretty much everyone who drives on them agrees about that.
NEESES, S.C. (AP) South Carolina's roads are in rotten shape — pretty much everyone who drives on them agrees about that.
Since 2010, the state has paid $40 million in claims for vehicle damage cause by road problems.
A coalition of frustrated business leaders has encouraged drivers to tweet pictures of potholes and linked them with dozens of yellow flags and red triangles on a state map, in an effort to pressure lawmakers for support.
And in an ominous message from industry, the chairman of Michelin North American has said his company likely can't expand its South Carolina operations unless roads improve.
But the gas tax, South Carolina's source of road building and maintenance money, will remain at one of the lowest rates in the nation this year — unchanged for more than three decades in a state where tax is the political equivalent of a dirty word.
Lawmakers, most recently in the state Senate, have been unwilling to raise it, even though business leaders, county managers and ordinary drivers say they'd be willing to pay a higher gas tax to help pay for road repairs.
Instead, legislators are offering a one-time $400 million road improvement shot from this year's state revenues, made possible because of economic growth.
But critics say it's dwarfed by the $1 billion a year the state Department of Transportation says it would need to get almost all state roads back to good condition and expand and build new highways to keep up with population growth.
It's the kind of quandary that arises in states where lawmakers are philosophically opposed to raising any taxes, yet must somehow find revenues to keep basic services like transportation intact.
During a gas tax debate, State Sen. Lee Bright said the government has plenty of money to pay for its needs without ever raising taxes, but lawmakers lack the courage to cut spending in other areas.
“I'm not going to vote for a tax increase. I think we can live within our means. Families do it every day,' said Bright, a Republican from Spartanburg.
State Sen. Vincent Sheheen and other Democrats call the GOP roads proposal the “patch act' because it does nothing for roads in the long term.
“Our roads still suck. Our roads are going to suck next year,' Sheheen said after the Senate passed the $400 million one-time bill.
Regardless of how much lawmakers set aside for roads this year, advocates say South Carolina needs an adequate, ongoing stream of road maintenance money.
“Our roads need help now. But they are going to need help later too. There has to be a dedicated source of money,' said Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young, whose county has 2,600 miles of rural roads.
Potholes in Orangeburg County are everywhere, said Bryan Maxwell, who drives a truck for B & J Ice Co. in Orangeburg. “As soon as they patch one, it seems like two more pop up. The roads are getting so bad they can't get to everything,' Maxwell said.
And Orangeburg County is one of the luckier ones. Although it lacks the tax base of the rapidly growing coastal counties, voters there have approved a penny local sales tax for roads, allowing it to pave 300 miles of the 1,100 miles of dirt roads, Young said.
“Now we're down to just enough dirt roads to drive from here to New Jersey,' the county administrator said.
Statewide, about 46 percent of the 41,400 miles of state roads in South Carolina are in poor condition. Laid end-to-end, that would be enough miles for four round trips from Columbia to Los Angeles.
And South Carolina roads are deteriorating fast. Nearly 6,000 miles of state-maintained roads have fallen into poor condition from 2008 to 2014, according to figures from TRIP, a transportation research group.
Before last year's legislative session began, an impressive coalition appeared to be assembling the clout to fix roads. The chairman of Michelin North America, which employs 8,500 people in seven plants, called South Carolina roads a disgrace and issued his near-ultimatum linking roads to expansion. The state Chamber of Commerce touted a poll saying Republican voters would support a 10-cent, 10-year gas tax increase.
But conservative senators filibustered the gas tax hike in 2015.
By 2016, the state had extra money from economic growth. Republican senators decided instead of raising the gas tax, they would use that growth money to send $400 million to roads. The House plans to agree, but warned it's just a one-year deal.
And an extra $400 million is only enough to smooth out the potholes on the interstates and fix about half of the state's structurally deficient bridges. It won't expand any highways, leaving Interstate 95 to clog from beach traffic heading back north where the highway shrinks from three lanes in Georgia to two in South Carolina.
Eighty percent of major, non-interstate highways in South Carolina are in such disrepair that South Carolina is coming close to having to rebuild many of them instead of repaving them, DOT Secretary Christy Hall said.
Young's biggest fear is that the state will burden counties with more and more road funding responsibility. That especially hurts in a place like Orangeburg County, where the administrator was trying to figure out how badly the closing of the buffet restaurant Ryan's was going to hurt his budget.
Maxwell is ready to pay more in gas tax because he is tired of dodging potholes in the ice truck.
“Fixing roads is something simple the government should do,' Maxell said. “It's like police or firefighters.'
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