The impact of a roads funding bill passed by the South Carolina General Assembly mid-2017 is unfolding, as bridges and other crumbling infrastructure receive repair work statewide; but the initiative to overhaul the state's decaying road system, and bring it up to par, has a billion-dollar price tag and is far from completion.
That was the bittersweet message—and not a new one—a local business crowd heard this month from Robby Robbins, chairman of the South Carolina Department of Transportation commission and commissioner for the First Congressional District, and Jennifer Patterson, director of South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads.
“Yes, progress is being made,” Patterson said. “We’ve just got a lot of work to do and this is something that’s not going to be fixed quickly.”
Both gave an update, on one of the top issues affecting the state, on Jan. 30 at Summerville Town Hall, as part of the monthly “Power Hour” event sponsored by the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce.
“Our state is so far behind…the longer we wait, the more it will cost,” Patterson said of roads funding.
Her grassroots agency has been advocating 38 years for better roads, and after pushing for more public awareness in recent years, helped make a vital roads funding bill a reality. Patterson said the topic shifted from “no priority” in the Legislature to a “top priority” in 2014, resulting in “election success” in 2018. The law raised the state gas tax for the first time in three decades.
Robbins championed the successful efforts of the Alliance.
“Years ago there was no appetite in the Legislature for doing any of this (road work),” he said, “but that organization…went to work and energized this issue. What they did is they got you folks involved; and once you got involved, the Legislature started listening.”
And South Carolina is actually one of 22 states the last five years to impose higher gas taxes, Patterson said. The South Carolina bill, in particular, imposed a 12-cent increase over six years, lifting the tax two cents annually. Prior to the bill’s passing in June 2017, the state gas tax had remained untouched since 1987.
But it’s going to take at least $11 billion to raise the state’s infrastructure status to just “good,” according to Patterson.
“This is something that is a major undertaking,” she said.
According to Patterson, SCDOT is committed over the next 10 years to improving at least 92 percent of the state’s interstates. She said the state is also planning to spend $151 million per year on bridge repairs.
Since the bill’s implementation 1.5 years ago, SCDOT has already reinforced and worked on 51 bridges and 2,200 pavement improvement projects statewide, among other construction efforts. Robbins further added how in that same time frame the state has allocated more than $900 million in construction projects and has more than $400 million cash in hand, dispelling the myth that SCDOT isn’t spending money or utilizing taxpayers’ funds correctly.
Robbins said more than anything, SCDOT desires to be as transparent as possible with the public and has posted all its projects and other relevant stats on its website.
According to Patterson, state lawmakers likely won’t pass any additional roads funding this year but could pass legislation, she said is just as necessary, supporting workforce development.
“We need skilled workers across state, which help with road work,” she said.
Patterson said the Alliance is also hopeful for a federal infrastructure plan to pass this year “despite the partisanship in Washington.”
“There is still a little ray of hope,” she said.
Patterson and her group specifically desire a fix to the Highway Trust Fund, which she said is tied to the fuel tax.
While much road reconstruction is occurring across the state, many projects have suffered delayed timelines from uncontrollable factors, Patterson said. And in recent years, those factors have been weather related and resulted in extreme “deterioration” in Dorchester and Berkeley Counties alone, Robbins told the crowd.
He mentioned the unexpected, heavy snowfall in January 2018, along with hurricanes and multiple other flood events that have plagued the Lowcountry and entire state the last couple years.
“I can’t tell you how badly that affected our secondary road system, and we’re recovering from that now,” Robbins said. “We need some good weather, folks. We need a good year where we don’t have natural disasters, and we don’t have manmade disasters.”
Robbins said after the unique winter weather event, he described as the Lowcountry's largest snowfall in 40 years, last year SCDOT had to also address the Wando Bridge issue in May, an overpass repair in Orangeburg - after a tractor-trailer crashed into the structure - and a train derailment in Columbia.
“All of these things take the focus away from what we need to be focusing on,” Robbins said of the state agency.
Rain also keeps SCDOT manpower off the ground, and the agency doesn’t conduct paving work during December. In spite of delays and funding needs, many local projects are underway—and some, like the years-long Berlin G. Myers widening—are finally wrapping up, according to Robbins.
“Locally, there’s an awful lot of good stuff going on,” he said.
The commissioner said he anticipates the rest of the funding, needed to complete the expansion of the Summerville area roadway's final leg, becoming available, with a project permit in hand by this summer.
Robbins also praised the Nexton Parkway as “one of the best single roads we’ve gotten built,” though he said added solutions for area roadway congestion “to make it flow as best we can” are still needed as area growth continues.
“Everything is growing to the western side of town,” Robbins said. “You can build a subdivision quicker than you can build a road.”
As for Highway 61 work, Robbins said the project delay has largely been tied to the SCDOT’s focus the last several months on Hurricane Florence victims instead.
“We dropped what we were doing and had to help in the Pee Dee,” he said.
SCDOT has completed survey work on the narrow highway and this spring will discuss adding 4-foot shoulders and looking at implementing a different design—“from impervious to a pervious shoulder,” according to Robbins.
He explained SCDOT is also working to hand over control of some of its road maintenance to local municipalities, an issue he called the “800-pound gorilla in the room."
"The more you can do locally, the better," Robbins said.
With more residential streets in South Carolina’s state system than total lane miles in Tennessee’s entire system, SCDOT needs help, he explained.
“We have initiated a program to divest the state of some of the roads and give control to local governments,” Robbins said. “Those are functional things that need to be looked at and analyzed to try and make everything work better.”
Currently the program lacks sufficient funding.