Big chunk of gas-tax-hike money not going to major road, bridge repairs

January 25, 2019

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By RICK BRUNDRETT

Last June, S.C. Department of Transportation commissioner Robert “Robby” Robbins questioned agency head Christy Hall whether the worst roads in the state were being fixed.

“I want a system-wide analysis of which roads are the worst, and I want money to go there first … and I don’t think we are doing that right now,” Robbins, then the commission’s vice-chairman and who was named chairman last week, said during the commission meeting.

Hall replied the agency was taking a “blended approach” to road paving, addressing some of the “worst-of-the-worst” roads while at the same time spending money on roads that were in “fair” condition, contending that ignoring those roads now will cost more in the long run.

The latest review by The Nerve found that in first 18 months of spending under the gas-tax-hike law, about $15 million, or nearly a quarter, of the total $61.4 million paid to road contractors went for “preservation” projects – not major repairs.

On its website, DOT defines road “preservation” as a “proactive approach to maintaining South Carolina’s roads using low-cost preventative maintenance treatments,” claiming, “Moving from a worst-first strategy to one of preservation will ensure that we are getting the most from the limited resurfacing dollars.”

One type of “preservation” is “crack sealing,” which involves the “filling of moderately sized cracks with hot liquid rubberized asphalt material,” according to the site.

DOT said it patched about 411,000 potholes statewide last fiscal year, according to its fiscal 2018 annual report, though the agency didn’t respond to written questions earlier this month from The Nerve about pothole repair work done outside calls to its Customer Service Center. The Nerve last week revealed that the department filled far fewer potholes over the past three fiscal years through calls to the center.

In passing the gas-tax-hike law, which raised the gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years, and increased other vehicle taxes and fees, lawmakers promised that the money would be used to fix the state’s pothole-riddled roads and deteriorating bridges.

DOT has said 80 percent of the state’s approximately 42,000 miles of roads needs to be resurfaced or rebuilt, and identified 465 of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges to be replaced.

The Nerve’s latest review of “Infrastructure Maintenance Trust Fund” (IMTF) spending from July 1, 2017, through Dec. 31 found that only $1.3 million of the $61.4 million paid to contractors was for road reconstruction, defined by DOT on its website as typically requiring the “complete removal and replacement of the existing pavement structure.”

And less than $90,000 was spent from the IMTF during the period on just one identified bridge replacement project, records show.

Of the $61.4 million paid to contractors over the period, $39.2 million, or 64 percent, was spent on “rehabilitation” road projects. On its website, DOT defines that as “restoring existing structural capacity through the removal and replacement of deteriorated pavement surface, or by increasing pavement thickness to strengthen existing pavement sections,” contending the methods are a “cost effective technique to address failing pavements before they require reconstruction.”

As The Nerve has been reporting over the past year, relatively little has spent out of the IMTF. Of the nearly $505.7 million collected in the first 18 months of the gas-tax-hike law, about $63.7 million, or about 12.6 percent of the total, was spent on “external” projects identified by DOT. Most of the total expenditures were listed by DOT as “Payment to Road & Bridge Contractors,” The Nerve’s review found.

Meanwhile, DOT’s IMTF projects list continues to grow. As of Dec. 31, it stood at $914.3 million, though approximately $246 million, or about 27 percent, was designated for “interstate upgrade” projects on I-85 in Spartanburg and Cherokee counties, and I-20 in Lexington County.

Hall told The Nerve last year that the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB), could use IMTF revenues for earlier-approved interstate-widening projects. The DOT Commission in October approved a new rural instate-widening program that agency records show would be funded partly with revenues that would be freed up by 2024 after a gas tax credit expires.

The Nerve revealed in October, however, that DOT might have to transfer at least $300 million to cover expected shortfalls in a state account that will be used to fund the credits until they expire.

Last month, The Nerve reported that a bill sponsored by Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, would divert millions from a main source of gas-tax-hike revenues to widen interstates.

The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, has contended that the gas-tax-hike law was written in a way to allow DOT to divert IMTF revenues to pay bond debts of the STIB.

Following is a breakdown of the total amounts spent on “external” projects in counties as of Dec. 31 under the gas-tax-hike law, according to DOT online records, though specifics on the actual work done on listed roads were not provided. In several cases, DOT combined several counties while listing other projects in those counties. Another $411,282 was spent in DOT Districts 2 and 3, though counties in those districts weren’t identified.

  • Abbeville: $126,280
  • Aiken: $2,958,180
  • Allendale: $4,806
  • Anderson: $1,862,673
  • Anderson, Oconee: $57,889
  • Bamberg: $8,020
  • Barnwell: $6,317
  • Berkeley: $5,166,856
  • Charleston: $1,334,837
  • Cherokee: $818,724
  • Chester: $250,816
  • Chesterfield: $2,139,147
  • Chesterfield, Lancaster: $67,882
  • Colleton: $192,688
  • Darlington: $2,106,228
  • Dillon: $2,995,557
  • Dorchester: $1,347,981
  • Edgefield: $294,468
  • Fairfield: $159,843
  • Florence: $746,253
  • Georgetown: $58,116
  • Greenville: $7,975,733
  • Greenwood: $382,436
  • Hampton: $4,969
  • Horry: $146,896
  • Jasper: $4,766,764
  • Kershaw: $211,800
  • Kershaw, Sumter: $37,362
  • Lancaster: $512,310
  • Laurens: $48,574
  • Lee: $604,907
  • Lexington: $1,430,657
  • Marion: $3,760,325
  • Marlboro: $2,128,159
  • McCormick: $107,528
  • Newberry: $518,430
  • Oconee: $2,654,446
  • Orangeburg: $1,645,529
  • Pickens: $2,545,290
  • Richland: $2,238,847
  • Saluda: $1,739,118
  • Spartanburg: $236,161
  • Sumter: $1,728,478
  • Union: $1,414,572
  • Williamsburg: $460,055
  • York: $3,221,602

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

 

Comments are closed.