During a presentation at the June 15 meeting of the South Carolina Department of Transportation’s (SCDOT) Commission, Executive Director Elizabeth S. Mabry outlined the past, present and future of transportation in South Carolina.
Mabry’s vision for the future focused on:
• preserving the highway system
• Economic Strategic Corridors
• stimulating the economy
• enhancing connectivity
Mabry began the presentation by reviewing the goals that were accomplished in SCDOT’s 1998 vision, including:
• improving community involvement
• erecting cable barriers
• reducing the speed limit and establishing truck lanes in urban areas
• seeking anti-litter partnerships
• enacting mandatory seatbelt legislation
• embracing Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) and improving hurricane evacuations
• Reducing the SCDOT vehicle fleet and equipment pool
• incorporating bicycle and pedestrian facilities in projects
• using bonds to build 27 years’ worth of projects in seven years.
In her presentation, Mabry pointed to the “27 in 7” accelerated construction program that began in 1999. She noted that implementing this program and the Construction Resource Managers component of the program were significant, and could not have been possible without the support of the SCDOT commission and the contractors and firms in the highway industry.
Mabry said, “We built roads with low-interest bonds, during a time when construction costs grew at a rate of 10 percent. We have saved the citizens of South Carolina almost $3 billion in project costs alone, and made early delivery on projects that were selected by local planning groups.”
Some of the projects that were accelerated under the “27 in 7” program are:
• Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge in Charleston
• I-26/US 378 Urban Diamond Interchange in Lexington County
• SC 9 in Chester County
• SC 161 in York County
• I-385 widening in Greenville/Laurens Counties
• SC 22 (Conway Bypass) in Horry County.
Mabry declared that South Carolina has reached a crisis point that SCDOT has been predicting for the last nine years. Mabry explained that fuel prices have tripled, creating huge increases in construction costs, while revenues from fuel sales have not kept pace with the state’s needs. Fuel consumption has leveled off, and revenues are flat.
According to Mabry’s presentation, inflation that has occurred since 1999 allows SCDOT to currently build 6.1 mi. of roads with the same money that used to build 10 mi. of road in 1999. However, there has been no significant increase in revenue to keep up the pace.
Mabry highlighted news reports from Virginia and Iowa, as examples of this highway crisis occurring across the nation. An April 10 WHSV-TV report noted that Virginia DOT recently adopted a policy of phasing out new construction due to high costs. VDOT will totally be out of the new construction business by the year 2010 if the revenue picture does not change, the report said.
A Des Moines Register story from June 14 reported that Iowa DOT just eliminated $118 million from this year’s budget that was to be spent on new construction.
Mabry said, “The story is much the same nationwide.”
Mabry summarized the situation by saying that SCDOT is attempting to overcome four major obstacles:
• stagnant revenues
• less federal funding than expected
• the end of an aggressive bonding program (“27 in 7”).
Mabry explained that she has spent the past nine years in her tenure as executive director holding down costs as much as possible. An independent report ranks SCDOT as the second most cost-effective DOT in the nation. Mabry also presented a series of strategies that could be used to improve transportation in South Carolina:
• reduce the number of miles in the state highway system
• resurface secondary roads on a 15-year cycle
• resurface primary roads on a 12-year cycle
• reduce deficient bridges
• increase ordinary and preventive maintenance.
Mabry noted that South Carolina has the fourth largest state-maintained highway system in the nation, but that maintaining a large system cannot be sustained when South Carolina has the lowest level of state-funded investment in highways in the country. Mabry said that even if the state system was reduced by 30 percent (7,500 mi.), South Carolina would still be in the top-five largest state highway systems.
Mabry reported that South Carolina has approximately 8,300 state-owned bridges, and that 22 percent of them are either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient. She warned that the current funding rate will prevent SCDOT from reducing the number of bridges that need replacements, and that the number of deficient bridges will grow each year.
Highway congestion was another area addressed in the presentation. Mabry offered the following suggestions:
• add highway capacity
• widen existing roads and build new location roads
• implement more Intelligent Transportation Systems
• provide transit alternatives: HOV lanes and Park and Ride facilities
• expand interstates by building additional toll lanes alongside free lanes
• construct special projects: Port Access Road in North Charleston, I-73 in the Pee Dee and Grand Strand, Increase the Safe Routes to School program, East Coast Greenway Bicycle Route and bicycle spurs on scenic amd historic routes
• focus on the state’s multimodal plan: economic corridors, mass transit, high speed and commuter rail, green spaces on highways
Mabry said that South Carolina and the nation are at a point where transportation issues must move from “awareness” to “action.” She listed ideas for finding the resources needed to meet the challenges:
• additional investment in transportation
• educating, inspiring and convincing the public and the legislature
• calling upon the SCDOT Commission to continue to be a champion for SCDOT and transportation
Mabry recommended that the SCDOT commission pass a resolution declaring the necessity for substantial additional investment in transportation.
Her presentation highlighted the economic impact SCDOT has on the state’s economy, referencing a study conducted by the University of South Carolina in 2003. SCDOT’s operations support:
• a total of $2.1 billion of economic output annually
• $1.6 billion attributable to highway construction and maintenance projects
• $786.6 million in labor income
• 24,360 full-time jobs related to transportation activities
• 91.6 million in annual, recurring tax revenue: $79.3 million for the general fund and $12.3 million directly allocated to education
• Every $1 million spent on highway construction and maintenance in SC supports 21 jobs
Mabry told the gathering that investing in highways is wise from an economic standpoint, just as the state invests in the tourism industry and the Ports Authority. She added that SCDOT must intensify efforts to inform the governor and the legislature that South Carolina is facing a transportation crisis that can no longer be deferred, and that increasing revenue for the State Highway Trust Fund is the most positive solution.
Mabry suggested the following action items:
• adjust the fee on motor fuels
• diversify funding, reducing reliance on the state gas tax by adding other sources
• index funding for inflation
Mabry also proposed a Ten Year Plan:
• increase funding to SCDOT in increments
• index transportation funding for inflation at the end of 10 years
• explore innovative and flexible approaches to providing mass transit
• develop a rail plan
The goal of this Ten Year Plan is to reach a $1 billion increase in transportation funding at the end of the ten years, according to Mabry. By comparison, Georgia has responsibility for 18,000 mi. of state-maintained highway, and in 2004, its resources totaled $1.5 billion per year. North Carolina DOT maintains 79,000 mi. In 2004, NCDOT’s revenues were $2.65 billion.