Deadly rural roads in dire need of funding, transportation boss says
COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s top transportation official said Wednesday there is an urgent need to improve thousands of miles of highways in rural areas where the link between conditions and the death toll is hard to deny.
Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said more than 6,800 fatality and injury-producing accidents have been reported on rural roads in the past five years.
Hall told lawmakers on hand for a DOT needs meeting that the agency would be investing in a “rural roads safety program,” calling the initiative her agency’s top priority in the coming years.
“Nearly 30 percent of our fatality and serious injury accidents are occurring on just over 5 percent of our roadways,” Hall said. “We believe it’s time for us to target the worst of the worst. We want to target that 5 percent.”
More than half of the state’s pavement is beyond rehabilitation and needs to be replaced, Hall said. “We are in a state of crisis when it comes to pavement,” she added.
Hall estimated it would take $11 billion to “fix our pavement system.”
“We doubled our paving program to $415 million a year, but we should be investing close to $900 million a year,” she said.
The poor condition of many of the state’s roadways can be partially linked to the South Carolina’s economic success in recent years.
“We’re very blessed in this state to have a growing economy,” Hall said. “Unfortunately, we just have not been able to keep up with the growth. Our citizens, on average, in our major urban areas we estimate spend an average of 30 hours a year sitting in traffic.”
Elected officials at Wednesday’s meeting responded with a mix of optimism and dread.
Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, called the statistics “sobering.”
“It more than an issue of convenience — getting from Point A to Point B — it’s a matter of life and death,” Grooms said. “You let us know the facts, so it’s really up to us as policymakers to deal with the facts that you’ve presented us.”
Some offered solutions, pitching bills that are now active in the current legislative session, including a Senate road funding proposal.
The Senate’s road bill would increase the state’s gas tax, which has stood at 16 cents per gallon since 1987, by 12 cents over three years. It would also raise the cap on vehicle purchase taxes from $300 to $600 per transaction. The Senate’s proposal would eventually provide $800 million for infrastructure.
“There’s a bill that goes a long, long way to solving a lot of these problems,” said Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville. “It’s certainly not going to solve everything, because the reality is we’re not going to give you a billion dollars a year more than what you’re getting now.”