Filling one crack at a time: key part of DOT’s plan to ‘fix’ SC’s bad roads

October 2, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Although state transportation officials claim they are making serious progress in fixing South Carolina’s bad roads and bridges with gas-tax-hike money, their own numbers continue to tell a different story.

Newly released S.C. Department of Transportation records show that of the $311.3 million in total vendor payments through August under the gas-tax-hike law that took effect July 1, 2017, at least $115.6 million, or more than 37%, was not spent on major road reconstruction or repaving projects.

Instead, that amount was spent collectively on “preservation” projects, which, according to DOT’s website, include such things as “crack sealing” and “chip sealing”; and on “safety improvement” projects, such as widening shoulders and adding guard rails.

The total rate of spending in those categories has remained in the 30%-plus range so far this year, The Nerve’s latest review found.

In passing the gas-tax-hike law, which raised the state gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years and increased other vehicle taxes and fees, lawmakers promised that the revenues would go toward fixing the state’s crumbling roads and bridges.

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

Yet as of Aug. 31, the cash balance in a special fund created with the gas-tax-hike law was $451.7 million, or 54.5% of the $828.1 million in collected revenues over the 26-month period, DOT records show.

The Nerve in August revealed that DOT was planning to complete about 2,300 miles of road repairs by the end of 2021, though that number represented less than 7% of the approximately 33,600 miles of state roads that the agency says have to be resurfaced or reconstructed.

Of the $716.6 million in identified “pavements” projects through August, $133.4 million, or 18.6%, had been completed, according to agency records. In more than half of the state’s 46 counties, the completion rate in that category was less than 20%.

DOT has identified nearly $1.1 billion in project “commitments” with gas-tax-hike revenues, though contrary to what lawmakers pledged in pushing for the increases, $246 million, or nearly a quarter of the total, is designated for interstate widenings – which the agency began to more clearly acknowledge after The Nerve in January revealed those plans.

Bad roads can result in thousands of dollars in car repairs and serious injury or death. The Nerve last month reported that DOT, through the state Insurance Reserve Fund, since last year has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in pothole claims.

The Nerve’s latest review found that in 10 counties, at least half of the total vendor payments as of Aug. 31 collectively was for “preservation” and “safety improvement” projects. Following is a list of the 10 counties with the highest percentage of total vendor payments for those projects:

  • Laurens: 94.76%
  • Lexington: 88.38%
  • McCormick: 76.79%
  • Orangeburg: 72.69%
  • Abbeville: 66.97%
  • Jasper: 63.35%
  • Horry: 59.77%
  • Richland: 58.81%
  • Georgetown: 58.80%
  • Clarendon: 55.46%

Lexington County led all counties in the total collective amount spent on “preservation” and “safety improvement” projects – $13 million – through August, with Jasper ($11.8 million), Horry ($10.3 million), Orangeburg ($8.1 million) and Aiken ($4.9 million) counties rounding out the top five, The Nerve’s review found. More details on specific projects can be found on DOT’s website.

Editor’s Note: The South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, has launched “Project Road Repair” to encourage citizens to contact their lawmakers about getting their bad roads fixed. To learn more about the project, go here.

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.

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