Are the roads really crumbling?

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Some data say SC’s, like the nation’s, aren’t that bad

“The state’s crumbling road system” — that phrase and its variants seem to be uttered almost nonstop in South Carolina as the General Assembly mulls the latest gas-tax increase legislation.

South Carolina Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall has been outspoken, saying state roads are in a crisis. On Tuesday, she went further, telling the Senate Finance Committee that 54 percent of the roads are in such awful condition that they must be ripped up and rebuilt — at a cost of $8 billion.

SCDOT had a $1.63 billion budget for the last fiscal year, of which it says a little over half, $848 million, is already spent on maintenance and preservation of roads. To keep up with the problem Hall testified about, the agency says it will need to spend an additional $1 billion a year.

So we asked how SCDOT knows all this.

Hall’s office pointed us to two documents: the Legislative Audit Council’s 2016 review of SCDOT, which describes some of the way the DOT measures road quality, and SCDOT’s 2016 State of the Pavement Report, which presents the results. If this were all you knew, you might reasonably think your hair was on fire.

In 2014, for example, SCDOT found that of 9,471 miles of primary roads in the state system, exactly 54 percent were in poor condition according to its Pavement Quality Index, based on visual identification. That same year, it found that of 20,657 miles of secondary roads, the amount in poor condition was the same: 54 percent. And by poor, the agency apparently means these roads are so bad they can’t be reasonably repaired or resurfaced.

This isn’t the only data that the state collects on the condition of some of its roads, however. It also measures road conditions differently, for a different but overlapping set of state roads, which it, like all the other states, reports to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

David Hartgen works with that Highway Administration data. An emeritus professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Hartgen has been a transportation policy analyst for the state of New York, and for the Highway Administration, and the principal investigator on six federal studies of traffic. He’s an author of numerous studies on roads conditions, including Are Highways Crumbling? and The Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report.

So we asked him, in looking at the numbers that SCDOT provides to the Highway Administration, are South Carolina’s roads in especially bad shape?

“I wouldn’t say that,” Hartgen said, speaking by phone from his office in Charlotte, “and I don’t think the data shows that.” He added, “You can’t decide what to do about a road by just looking at its roughness.”

Here is some of what the Highway Administration data show over time, in categories Hartgen says are key performance indicators:

In percent of rural interstates in poor condition, South Carolina rated 7.4 in 1989, 0.9 in 1999, and 0.2 in 2008, ranking 15th among all states for change in percent poor.

In 2013, that figure had further declined, to 0.08 percent.

In 2015, it ticked up to 0.39.

(From 1989 to 2008, the U.S. average went from 6.6 percent poor, to 2.35 percent, to 1.93. In 2015, it was 1.85 percent.)

There is some recent worsening here, but the data SCDOT collects and sends to the Highway Administration show that the state’s rural interstates, comprising about 500 miles of roadways, over time have been vastly improved (and keep in mind, for example, that 0.39 percent here represents about two miles of roads).

In percent of urban interstates in poor condition, South Carolina rated 3.4 in 1989, 3.2 in 1999, and 0.8 in 2008, ranking 17th among states for change in percent poor.

In 2013, that figure had risen slightly, to 0.84 percent.

In 2015, it had risen to 2.41 percent — which is about five miles of roads, out of 304 miles.

(From 1989 to 2008, the U.S. average went from 6.55 percent poor, to 7.21 percent, to 5.37. In 2015, it was 5.02 percent.)

In percent of rural principal arterial roads in poor condition, South Carolina rated 1.5 in 1989, 0.3 in 1999, and 0.2 in 2008, ranking 22nd among states for change in percent poor.

In 2013, that figure had risen slightly, to 0.24 percent.

In 2015, it had risen to 1 percent — which is about 15 miles of roads, out of 1,546 miles.

(From 1989 to 2008, the U.S. average went from 2.58 percent poor, to 0.85 percent, to 0.53. In 2015, it was 1.35 percent.)

In percent of urban interstates congested, South Carolina rated 71.8 in 1989, 47.7 in 1999, and 50 in 2008, ranking 5th-most reduced among states.

(In that time, the U.S. average went from 52.6 percent, to 40.1, to 48.6.)

Over the period studied in Are Highways Crumbling?, the authors conclude that “the overall condition of the state-owned highway system appears to be improving and has possibly never been in better shape. In short, the U.S. highway infrastructure is not ‘crumbling.'”


So why does everyone believe the roads are crumbling?

Apart from some crumbling of roads, one explanation is that most people experience road conditions on a daily commute. They typically begin and end on smaller and locally maintained streets at either end, where problems are more likely to occur or be evident, such as potholes and bumps.

The Highway Administration shows that urban minor arterial roads in South Carolina jumped from 1.6 percent poor in 2011 to 19.7 percent poor in 2015.  That’s quite a leap. Some smaller roads seem to be getting worse faster.

“All sections of road are deteriorating all the time,” Hartgen says, which is simply in the nature of things that are used. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that entire roads systems are in poor condition.

Roads may be rated in “fair” rather than “good” condition, but, says Hartgen, “How good should the system be? That’s a question that doesn’t get asked…

“South Carolina is saying, ‘We need a billion and a half dollars annually to fix this problem’ — and that just isn’t true.”

Hall, who leads the agency responsible for assessing, maintaining, and building state roads, is looking at data that SCDOT collects and saying one thing, in essence, and Hartgen, a highly qualified analyst, is looking at data that agency collects and saying another. They can’t both be right.

In the end, the answer may indeed be anecdotal: Are you driving on roads where you encounter the same few annoying bumps and potholes every day, in need of repair, or are you driving on roads that have completely failed?

Nerve stories are always free to reprint and repost. We only ask that you credit The Nerve.




  • TrikkiNikki

    Anybody who’s driven on I-77 recently around Columbia knows that road is in TERRIBLE shape. When will SCDOT finally repave the section that was milled months ago and then just left to rip up our cars and truck tires on a daily basis??!! It’s getting ridiculous.

    • Glenn Henderson

      Yooooooou . . . didn’t read the story, did you.

  • colnzgprnts

    Our state has problems much more serious than the condition of our roads. Many problems are rooted in overspending, over taxation and over regulation – conditions characteristic of most government bodies!

    • Bill

      “Over taxation” right, even though SC 36th out of 50 for overall tax burden.

      If we could get yankees to quit retiring here who don’t want to pay ANY taxes we might just be able to improve our roads, schools, etc…

      • colnzgprnts

        Bill, y’all might want to check the validity of being 36th in overall tax burden. The person who did the calculation might be the same person who reports unemployment numbers – (e.g., less than 5% when in fact more in the neighborhood of 15 plus)

        • Bill

          If we actually had high taxes the coast would not be filling up with Yankees at a breakneck pace.

          • Scuba Steve

            Amen, all the yankees move down here from New York and Ohio and the only thing they care about is paying zero tax.

          • Um, no

            If that was the case, they’d all be moving to Florida.

          • Steve

            Florida is full.

      • swampland

        In 2016, the Tax Foundation ranked all 50 states for state and local tax burden combined per capita, which is the way to do it because some states administer programs at the local level while other states administer the same programs at the state level.

        South Carolina’s state and local tax burden combined in the report ranked 42nd out of 50 states.


    One way to keep the highways in much better condition is to get the damn yankees out of the highway department.

    Example: instead of closing roads in snow/ice conditions as in the past. Thus, saving lives. Instead they send out road scraper snow plows that literally destroy the highways. This happened on I-26 between Columbia and Spartanburg right after it was repaved. You could see right where the snow plows dug up the asphalt, pulled up reflectors and destroyed the newly repaved road less than 12 months after it was done.

    Another example: using salt on bridges, instead of the usual sand and clay of the past. This yankee “know it alls,” trick destroyed the bridges with corrosion every where it has been used. Plus, it has caused millions of dollars of damage to citizens cars from rust damaged caused by salt. Not to mention the environmental damage caused by salt run off. Something just now being shown as a major environmental hazard.

    Salt, and massive use of road scrapers are making SC roads look just like the roads up north. Which is exactly the results you get when you let these yankees run your DOT. SC can save the gas tax and wasted DOT maintenance money by simply firing anybody from up north who tries to tell us how we should be maintaining our highways here. “We don’t care how you did it up north.”

    • Bob

      Without all the Yankees money you would still be on dirt roads.

  • Hardy King

    Did Robert Meyerowitz ride on any roads or just look at data, did he ride on I95, sit in traffic on Broad River Road. Or sit at a side road trying to turn left against traffic on a major 2 lane US Hwy with bumper to bumper traffic moving at 5-10 miles an hour 4pm to 8pm. Our roads need a lot of work, widening and repaving, penny penching isn’t going to fix that. Yes we have lots of problems, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address them all. But trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip isn’t really a fix, either.

    • Robert Meyerowitz

      I’ve ridden on roads. And I looked at data.

      • Hardy King

        have you sat on roads connecting to US hwys wanting to turn left, when traffic is bumper to bumper, 5 to 10 miles an hour and no turn lane to get into, and can’t get out. roads need to be widened, repaired, bridges need repairing, pot holes along I95, potholes on all roads, crumbling areas on most major roads, drive in NC, you think you got a new car, the road in front of my business was redone a couple years ago, already crumbling, in need of repair, many roads around here need widening, but want get done , no money,, keeping roads at the needs work, repaving, reconditioning condition is not acceptable, they need to be in the Good condtion, on the data chart,

        • Bob

          “Already Crumpling” that says it all. Where were the DOT inspectors.Where are the

  • swampland

    Everybody has a story about a bad road he or she has driven on. However, as noted in the above article, SC is in the top 10 or 12 of the states with the best roads. The question is whether we want to increase taxes by billions of dollars on our hard-working people to be a top 5 state or whether or current ranking is good enough.

  • swampland

    We all have anecdotes about some bad roads we driven on. It is interesting to know, however, that that we are in the top 10 of the states with the best-maintained major roads. Perhaps, we should allow our major roads to deteriorate to top-15 status and use the savings to maintain our minor roads, which the data shows are in bad shape.

  • Painful Truth

    SCDOT twists and turns information to fit their wants at the time. They’ve gone from fighting to keep the roads from being shown as a contributing factor on collision reports, to now claiming the roads are “the” reason for the increase in the fatalities. All the while, published data from the Office of Highway Safety show otherwise. They’ve always spent money on roads that were in good shape, while ignoring the roads that needed attention. They recently remodeled all their offices, gutting some facilities, totally rebuilding, while they claim to not have the money to fix the potholes. They’re a crooked bunch that rubs it in our faces. The more money they get, the more they must spend and waste. Their waste is documented and ignored by those that supposed to be working for us, but are just as arrogant as those at SCDOT. Our schools work the same way, as this has always been very profitable to both. Drain the swamp in SC too. It’s filthy black with greed.

  • Paul Nelson

    First of all, if you have read the reports from the SC Policy Council, SC is not a low tax state. The tax burden on South Carolinians is something like 17th heaviest in the US. New gas taxes will only add to that burden.

    Secondly, eyeballing the roads doesn’t provide sufficient detail on their actual condition. Only an independent company doing core examinations of the road bed can provide a true analysis of the road conditions.

    Thirdly, we are daily being bombarded by liberal newspaper reports, Chamber of Commerce reports, and lobbyists for road builders, all of whom have vested interests in hiking our taxes and building/paving/repaving more roads. Don’t believe everything you hear on the “news.”

    I’ve tried to get local newspapers to print an alternative viewpoint from SC Policy Council/The Nerve website, but they won’t do it, as they want to control the narrative that SC needs more taxes to “fix the roads.”

  • swampland
    • Bill

      I guess you did not read the parts of the report where they note that we are 47th for roadway fatalities (#1 has least per miles traveled). Or the part where 24% of all our brides are deficient, or that 27% of the rural main arteries that are too narrow.

      Seriously, we only ranked #1 because of how much money we are spending per mile, and we are only #1 at that because this state has ignored the roads and other infrastructure to a point that we will need to be #1 in spending for years before we catch up.

      • swampland

        The Reason Foundation reported that South Carolina’s road maintenance for major roads ranks in the top 10 among the 50 states. The condition of our bridges ranks 24th. The Nerve, however, does report that our minor roads are much worse condition.

        Regarding road safety, the Greenville News has reported that it is not clear that our highway deaths are related to our roads.

        “Are hazardous roads in South Carolina causing deaths?”
        Greenville News
        March 4, 2017

        “When South Carolina’s traffic fatality rate ranked worst in the nation last year, some saw the report as ammunition for making the case the state needs to be spend more fixing roads that are contributing to highway carnage.
        A review of accident records for 2016 by The Greenville News, however, reveals that the link between South Carolina’s road conditions and highway casualties is elusive and difficult to document.”


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