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SC’s Lack of Investment in Routine Maintenance Leaves State in Rut

Wed April 14, 2004 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley

Deteriorating road conditions have Department of Transportation officials in South Carolina (SCDOT) sending up flares.

“It’s a very serious situation,” said Michael Covington, director of SCDOT Governmental Relations. “A number of different studies all find that South Carolina hasn’t kept pace with the economic growth that’s taken place. We had a wonderful highway system 40 years ago –– so good that the state legislature seemed to assume that was a resource we’d always have. The state didn’t come up with continued investment. All things equal, we’re investing 36 percent less than before.”

One of the studies, conducted by nonprofit research group The Road Information Program, found one third of South Carolina’s state roads in poor condition. That amounts to more congestion, an increase in traffic-related fatalities and higher costs to motorists. Damage to vehicles and tires averaged more than $200 a year, plus additional operating costs.

According to Covington, “We need to focus on routine maintenance and safety. We really want to improve our secondary system because we have a disproportionate number of deaths on our roads. We want to make safety upgrades and have turn lanes to avoid two-lane road rear-end collisions.

“We also need to widen lanes on many of our narrow roads. That can reduce the likelihood of a crash. In addition, we’d like to remove visibility problems like blind corners and hills,” he said.

“The numbers show there are three deaths each day in South Carolina. That’s unacceptable,” said Attorney Frank Elmore, former president of South Carolina’s Transportation Policy and Research Council. “We are second or third in the country in terms of traffic fatalities. The majority of deaths on our highways occur on secondary roads. South Carolina has not had the money to pave or improve any of our secondary roads in several years.”

Elmore further explained: “Our state ranks last in the nation in per capita expenditure for roads and highways, yet we have the fourth largest state-maintained system in the nation. I can not help but think of all the lives that could be saved if only we increased funding for our roads.

“The South Carolina Department of Transportation relies almost solely on the gasoline user fee to maintain and improve our roads,” he said. “Yet, the gasoline user fee has not been increased since 1987. Back then, I could get a cheeseburger for less than a dollar, make a phone call for 10 cents and get my car washed for $5.00. South Carolina has the fifth lowest user fee in the nation, four cents below the national average.”

Covington added that his department has received a number of complaints about potholes.

“We had a particularly rough winter with lots of moisture and freezing temperatures, which have taken their toll on riding surfaces,” he said. “We’re trying to step up our full-depth patching system right now. Basically, we locate the potholes, cut them and compact the soil before patching with asphalt. It’s not ideal, but it helps and can be done at low cost.

“We also have a huge inventory of signs and are concerned about maintaining the reflectivity so they can be seen at night. In addition, we have to do drainage work so that culverts don’t get stopped up and ditches don’t get clogged. There are all sorts of projects and they all cost money,” he said.

The department’s money woes are partly a result of $240 million in federal transportation enhancement funds offered to the state. The money can apply only to new construction and require local matching funds. For the past four years, the state DOT has dipped into the state’s secondary-road maintenance fund to provide the matching funds.

“Aside from the fact that we have a very low motor fuel user fee that’s paid at the pump, we don’t support that income with any additional sources. Other states have at least 50 percent of state dollars coming from car tag taxes, vehicle purchase fees and, in some cases, even the General Fund,” Covington said.

South Carolina and a few other mid-Atlantic states put nearly all their roads under state ownership when the highway systems were created.

“Also,” he noted, “of the dollars coming in, the DOT isn’t getting it all. Some goes to the General Fund, other money goes to the Department of Commerce for economic development and others funds go to local government.”

Separate studies by the South Carolina Business Alliance for Transportation and by Clemson University also examined alternative funding options and the potential to meet the state’s projected transportation infrastructure needs.

In the Clemson report, a half-dozen scenarios were evaluated to determine the potential of meeting the nearly $57 billion target of a multimodal transportation plan from 2003 to 2022. Based on current funding sources at current rates, revenues of $26.3 billion over 20 years was projected, leaving a $30.6 billion shortfall.

“The fact is, South Carolina is the lowest in funding of state dollars in the entire nation,” Covington said. “This year, we’ll have somewhere in the neighborhood of $425 million in state dollars to maintain 42,000 miles of roads –– with a population of 4,000,000.

“We’ve got a statewide dilemma and we need to do a systemic modernization of our secondary road system. We need a solution soon, and I think it comes down to public awareness. People need to know about the flawed policies in our state,” he said.

Covington is predicting better times ahead.

“Hopefully, action will be taken next year to at least address our maintenance needs. A couple of bills introduced earlier in the legislature haven’t gone anywhere, but the business community has stepped up, and I think we may see some action.”

Elmore isn’t as optimistic.

“Unfortunately, I’m not expecting anything to be done in the near future. This is an election year, and you can bet taxes aren’t going to be raised. I’m just not very confident right now. The loss of life is certainly the most troubling in all of this, but what’s happening with our roads is also not good for economic development. The people of South Carolina deserve more.”