Transportation Secretary H.B. Limehouse Jr. made a “State of SCDOT address” to members of two legislative committees Feb. 20.
Limehouse told lawmakers that the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) has turned in a new direction in the time since he has served as the head of the agency. Limehouse made his remarks to members of the Senate Transportation Committee at the Gressette Building in the State House complex. Some members of the Joint Legislative Ad Hoc Committee, which followed up on the Legislative Audit Council report on SCDOT, also were in attendance.
Limehouse opened his remarks with a “snapshot” look at SCDOT. He noted that the agency is responsible for the fourth largest state-maintained highway system in the nation, with 41,500 mi. (66,800 km) of state roads, including 8,337 bridges.
He told the gathering that as the first Secretary of Transportation in South Carolina’s history, as appointed by Gov. Mark Sanford, he has targeted all of his efforts at making SCDOT more accountable and responsive to the needs of South Carolina.
“Since I became the agency head in May of 2007, I have worked with the SCDOT Commission to make us more efficient in the way we do business, particularly in the area of getting the most for the taxpayer’s dollars. These efforts, coupled with the new law that reorganized SCDOT and made it a Cabinet agency continue to guide us in serving the state better,” said Limehouse.
He listed several changes that have taken place at SCDOT:
• Projects are prioritized based on engineering criteria. Several factors including pavement condition, volume of traffic and safety factors such as crash/injury/fatality rates are considered. Every project or requested project is evaluated using the engineering criteria and given a ranking.
• All requests for highway projects no matter how large or small must be documented in writing and submitted for evaluation and prioritization.
• Approved requests must be certified by a licensed professional engineer.
Limehouse cited better financial management and better use of transportation dollars that are now employed by the agency.
“One of the first strategies I put into place was ’Fix it First!’ which shifts the focus from new construction to preserving the large state highway system that we have in South Carolina,” said Limehouse. “The Commission agreed and supported the idea that new money should go toward protecting our investment.”
Limehouse noted that increases in federal funding are being used for pavement preservation, bridge replacements and projects that improve the safety of roads. He pointed to an additional $26 million in federal funds that was awarded to SCDOT last fall because the agency was prepared with projects that were ready to move to construction within a short period of time. The $26 million has provided additional funding for 13 projects all around the state.
Recent approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation for SCDOT to investigate private investment in public highways was another innovative financing technique cited by Limehouse.
“Public-Private Partnerships are no longer the wave of the future; they have become today’s reality and a viable alternative. We are familiar with these partnerships in South Carolina, and we will continue to look at them. We will also have the advantage of having the most active State Transportation Infrastructure Bank in the country, and we’ll continue to work closely with the Bank’s Board,” Limehouse said.
Limehouse told the lawmakers that he has worked closely with his deputies to pursue cost savings within the agency at every level which have already provided results:
• One-time savings realized in 2007 — $17,836,597
• Annualized savings realized — $9,479,223
Eight initiatives designed to produce savings have been put into place.
“As chairman of the SCDOT Commission, I am very pleased with the improvements aimed at making the department of transportation more efficient,” said SCDOT Commission Chairman Bobby T. Jones, who represents the 5th Congressional District. “We must ensure the wise and efficient use of tax dollars as we seek to preserve and improve our vital transportation system.”
Other issues that Limehouse included in his presentation were highway safety, environmental concerns and serving the public. He pointed to the grim statistics that show South Carolina to be among the leading states in highway deaths. The death toll in 2007 was 1,074. Nearly half of those people killed were not wearing seat belts. Limehouse listed some of the state’s major safety initiatives including the Median Cable Barrier Program where cable barriers have been phased in on 420 mi. (676 km) of interstate highways beginning in 2001. The barriers have sustained over 13,000 “hits” during the last seven years.
A partnership between SCDOT and the S.C. Department of Public Safety (SCDPS) has created a team of state troopers who are funded by SCDOT to patrol work zones and high-speed corridors. The team has been in operation since June 2006.
Compared to the calendar year 2006, the 2007 crash, injury and death rates have declined considerably. Work zone crashes have dropped by 46 percent from 940 to 501; work zone injuries have dropped by 41 percent, from 410 to 239; and work zone fatalities have dropped by 53 percent, from 15 to 7.
Limehouse listed initiatives which have already paid dividends in terms of preservation of the environment and increasing the quality of life in South Carolina. Following Sanford’s leadership on this issue, SCDOT engineers devised a plan to save more “canopy trees” which will remain in the newly-created median in the project to widen U.S. 17 in Beaufort County. Also on this same project, SCDOT took measures to preserve boats that were used by Union soldiers in raids to free slaves on plantations near the Combahee River. The boats were discovered in the bed of the river prior to the bridge replacement portion of the widening project.
Also in Beaufort County, SCDOT worked with local leadership and residents to preserve the historic “Emancipation Tree” which was near the path of the U.S. 21 widening project on St. Helena Island. This tree is the location where a large number of slaves learned of their freedom when they heard the reading of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
In the Upstate, SCDOT won an environmental award for the replacement of a bridge on U.S. 76 which crosses the Chattooga River, connecting South Carolina and Georgia. The award was for the extra public input efforts made by the agency and the design of the bridge to conform to the natural area. SCDOT also has promoted the SmartRide commuter service in the Midlands of South Carolina.
The two existing routes promote mass transit services, while providing commuters with alternative transportation aimed at reducing congestion and improving air quality. Limehouse concluded his remarks with a list of upcoming projects that the agency plans to begin in 2008. Those projects include a 23-mi. (37 km) rehabilitation project on I-95 in Florence and Dillon Counties. He also told the lawmakers that “SCDOT has turned in a new direction where priorities are set objectively based on need and our business is conducted in the sunshine.”
The Charleston native was appointed as the executive director in May 2007 by the SCDOT commission. His appointment by Sanford as the states’ first Secretary of Transportation was confirmed by the S.C. State Senate on Aug. 2, 2007.
Limehouse previously served on the SCDOT Commission in the 1990s, including service as the commission chairman until 1999.