How S.C.’s Road Funding System Is Tearing Up My Car

September 9, 2014

Inside Insight

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pothole on roadHEY SOUTH CAROLINA: TAKE IT EASY ON MY TRANSMISSION!

Last weekend, I drove up to Carthage, North Carolina, to see some old friends. From Columbia, I took Highway 1 from Camden through McBee to Cheraw, then into North Carolina.

I’ve driven on bad roads before. I’ve driven in the American northeast, where melted snow seeps into the pavement and cracks it all winter long. I’ve driven in the Scottish Highlands, where many of the roads can’t really be called roads at all.

But never have I driven on a road as derelict as South Carolina Highway 1 between McBee and Cheraw. I don’t know what roads are like in rural Zimbabwe or Chile, but they cannot be worse than our Highway 1. If it hadn’t been on a Saturday, I probably would have gone straight to my mechanic and asked him to make sure no vital parts had FALLEN OUT OF THE ENGINE.

And it wasn’t just my poor car. I felt endangered myself. Earlier this year, an independent research organization dedicated to transportation issues, TRIP, ranked South Carolina’s rural roads among the deadliest in the nation. I can see why.

But is there a reason for the disastrous shape of our rural roads? The answer is Yes.

The first reason is pretty simple to explain: The state owns too many roads. South Carolina has only the 40th-largest land area and the 24th-largest population among all states, but SCDOT is responsible for 41,459 miles of road in South Carolina – the fourth-largest state highway system in the country. Or to put it another way: The state Department of Transportation is currently responsible for 63 percent of all state roads, whereas the national average is 19 percent.

That means state resources are stretched perilously thin to pay for all those roads, and most get overlooked.

Second: Policymakers in Columbia are addicted to federal money, and that addiction has major consequences for transportation funding. About a third of South Carolina’s state budget comes from Washington – $8 billion or so – and state legislative budget writers like it that way. It means they can let the federal government pay for core government services and use state dollars on the headline-grabbing items that bring a higher political dividend: tourism marketing, economic development projects, arts funding, higher education boondoggles, and so on.

But getting the feds to pay the bills for core services – in this case roads – comes at a price. And that price is federal control. Federal road dollars are usually handed out on a 80/20 match; the state ends up paying only about 20 percent of the cost, and the feds pay the rest. But federal regulations forbid that money from being used on routine maintenance. The result? In order to keep the cash pipeline flowing from Washington, the state Department of Transportation tends to prioritize new road construction over maintenance – which often means old roads remain in the shape they’ve been in since the Nixon administration.

Making the situation worse, projects that do get federal money are substantially more expensive than those that don’t. The Davis-Bacon Act, for example, sets a minimum for wages paid to workers on federal projects, with the result that prevailing wages on projects funded by Washington are 22 percent above market wages, and increase the total cost of the projects by 10 percent.

Third: the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank. This strange entity, on whose seven-member board two lawmakers sit, has as its purpose “to focus greater attention on larger transportation projects, and thereby allow SCDOT to devote resources to other important transportation projects.”

Translation: The STIB exists to siphon off transportation money to expansionary projects in politically influential counties. Which is why, as of 2012, 35 of South Carolina’s 46 counties had never gotten a dime of road funding from the STIB; why 33 percent of all the STIB’s money had gone to Charleston County; and why 95 percent of its money had gone to only six counties.  A map produced by the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League nicely illustrates how STIB funding finds its way almost exclusively to politically well-connected areas of the state.

And where does that leave the people who travel on or live near Highway 1 between McBee and Cheraw? It leaves them with an eternally decrepit highway, that’s where.

Barton Swaim is Director of Communications at the S.C. Policy Council, The Nerve’s parent organization. Recommendations on the state’s road funding problem may be found on the Policy Council’s website.