Fixing SC’s bad roads, bridges could take longer than a decade

May 29, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

The S.C. Department of Transportation wants to fix the state’s bad roads and bridges over a 10-year period, but it might not hit that target at the rate projects are being completed, a review by The Nerve found.

From July 1, 2017, when the gas-tax-hike law took effect, through April of this year, DOT says it completed $47.5 million in projects, according to its most recently released records. That amount is just 4.7% of the $1 billion in road and bridge work statewide that DOT has identified, and the completed projects were done over 22 months, which represents 18 percent of the 10-year plan.

On its website, DOT says revenues generated under the gas-tax-hike law, along with other state and federal funds, “form the financial foundation of SCDOT’s ten year plan and performance targets.” The 2017 law raised the state gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years, and increased other vehicle taxes and fees.

But relatively little has been spent and few projects have been completed under the 2017 law. Of the $657.3 million in total collected revenues in the first 22 months of the law, $130.8 million, or about 20 percent, was paid to vendors for “completed work” according to agency records.

The cash balance in a special state fund created by the law was $479.1 million as of April 30, which represented nearly 73 percent of the total collected revenues.

The Nerve last week reported that some of the 23 road contractors that have been paid for identified gas-tax-hike projects also are working on other big jobs funded through DOT, including interstate improvement projects.

DOT has designated nearly a quarter of the $1 billion in identified projects for interstate widenings, which it began to clearly acknowledge on its website after The Nerve in January revealed those plans. Yet in passing the gas-tax-hike law, state lawmakers promised that the money would go toward fixing deteriorating roads and bridges in their constituents’ communities.

In their version of the state budget for fiscal 2020, which starts July 1 – the same day the next 2-cent gas tax hike takes effect – senators proposed imposing a toll on a section of Interstate 95, though that plan and a related budget proviso were dropped in the final version passed by the Legislature.

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

Under state law, the governor nominates the nine members of the DOT Commission, which sets the spending priorities of the agency’s $2.5 billion budget. The legislative delegation in each of the state’s seven congressional districts has final say on whether to approve the appointee for their respective district, while both chambers of the Legislature vote on the two at-large nominees.

The Nerve’s latest review of DOT records found that as of April 30, no road or bridge projects had been completed with gas-tax-hike revenues in 22 of the state’s 46 counties, including the larger-populated Horry, Lexington and Spartanburg counties. Greenville, the state’s most-populous county, led all counties in the total value of completed projects – $5.3 million – though that amount represented less than 15% of the $36.9 million in overall project “commitments” in that county.

Of $128.8 million in vendor payments in identified counties, $30.4 million, or nearly a quarter of the total, was spent on “preservation” projects statewide over the 22-month period, which includes such things, according to DOT’s website, as “crack sealing” and “chip sealing.” Another $16.6 million, or about 13% of the total, was spent on “safety improvement” projects, which include such things as adding rumble strips and guardrails, and widening shoulders.

DOT, for example, spent $4.6 million over the period in Lexington County for various “safety improvement” projects, which led the state in that category and represented nearly 87 percent of total spending over the period in that county, records show.

Less than $7 million, or 5.25%, of the total $128.8 million spent statewide through April went for road reconstruction projects, The Nerve’s review found.

Following is a list of the total gas-tax-hike money spent over the 22-month period in each county:

  • Abbeville: $478,499
  • Aiken: $5,845,482
  • Allendale: $1,113,972
  • Anderson: $3,596,372
  • Bamberg: $933,849
  • Barnwell: $1,055,597
  • Beaufort: $1,029,794
  • Berkeley: $7,363,729
  • Calhoun: $358,379
  • Charleston: $2,532,075
  • Cherokee: $1,849,417
  • Chester: $485,880
  • Chesterfield: $3,143,080
  • Clarendon: $1,312,457
  • Colleton: $2,723,229
  • Darlington: $2,325,428
  • Dillon: $3,044,633
  • Dorchester: $3,516,333
  • Edgefield: $748,675
  • Fairfield: $177,324
  • Florence: $2,458,312
  • Georgetown: $1,713,188
  • Greenville: $11,190,602
  • Greenwood: $1,617,725
  • Hampton: $663,354
  • Horry: $4,335,123
  • Jasper: $9,783,577
  • Kershaw: $699,983
  • Lancaster: $2,025,510
  • Laurens: $393,659
  • Lee: $621,399
  • Lexington: $5,333,278
  • Marion: $3,988,045
  • Marlboro: $2,776,594
  • McCormick: $350,223
  • Newberry: $796,926
  • Oconee: $4,742,365
  • Orangeburg: $3,610,993
  • Pickens: $4,291,561
  • Richland: $3,614,342
  • Saluda: $2,234,182
  • Spartanburg: $3,875,675
  • Sumter: $2,788,359
  • Union: $2,980,496
  • Williamsburg: $3,835,569
  • York: $4,450,423

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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