Editorial

News Flash: Roads Cost Money

State’s transportation system sorely in need of new funding

January 19, 2013 

South Carolina’s roads are crumbling beneath us, and ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Action is needed soon -- this year, this month -- because the cost to fix our roads rises with every day that passes. And it will mean tough decisions that require substantially more funding, not just leftovers and scraps found here and there.

Not convinced? Read through the report on South Carolina’s road system put together for the state and issued in December by a diverse group of transportation experts. It’s only 13 pages long, but it sets out in stark detail the enormous challenges facing our state and the almost total lack of solutions in the works to meet those challenges.

The state road system has been underfunded for decades, saddled with one of the largest state-controlled road systems in the nation but with one of the lowest motor fuel taxes. The average state is responsible for the upkeep of about 19 percent of its roads. South Carolina is responsible for 63 percent of its roads, and does so with an antiquated funding system that relies heavily on a motor fuel tax that is the fourth lowest in the nation. The upshot is that the state is woefully behind on maintenance, even as lawmakers push for new projects, and without change now, that does not seem likely to change.

The numbers laid out by the Transportation Infrastructure Task Force in its report are frightening. Over the next 20 years, the state Department of Transportation predicts it will need $48.3 billion for bridges and highways. Based on current and historical funding, it expects to receive $19 billion, meaning the state’s road engineers will fall $29.3 billion short of what’s needed to bring our system up to just a “C” grade. That’s not an amount that we’ll find rooting around in the couch cushions.

The state estimates that resurfacing should be done on interstates every 10 to 12 years, on primary routes every 12 to 15 years and on secondary routes about every 20 years. We’re not even close to that goal.

“Based on SCDOT’s current financial ability, the resurfacing cycle currently stands at about 32 years for Interstates, 36 years for primary routes, and 119 years for secondary routes.”

119 years. More than a century. If the state’s road financing doesn’t change, that’s how long it could take for Horry County’s 961 miles of secondary roads get a new coat of asphalt. A secondary road paved in 1990 won’t be repaved until 2109. Well, the good news is that 119 years from now, we may not even still be driving cars.

Obviously, something needs to change. The state’s road system needs more money. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. The alternative, as state Transportation Secretary Robert St. Onge has put it, is just to “manage the decline of the highway system.”

The easiest short-term solution would be to raise the state’s 16.75 cent per gallon gasoline tax, which sits at about half the rates of neighbors North Carolina and Georgia. While the idea of an increase has received strong opposition from some state leaders in Columbia, including Gov. Nikki Haley, it’s hardly unrealistic. When the tax was instituted, in 1987, it made up 18 percent of the price of a gallon of gasoline (which cost 91 cents a gallon). Today, the tax makes up about 5 percent of the cost of a gallon of gas. If the tax had been tied to inflation, as many other states’ fuel taxes now are, it would be at about 33 cents a gallon today.

Not comfortable with raising the gas tax? There are other options available. Raise the cost of driver’s license or vehicle registration fees. Eliminate the artificial and unfair $300 sales tax cap on vehicle sales. Institute tolls on state highways. Charge fees for encroachment permits. Tack on a fee to insurance premiums. Lawmakers may pick and choose between these and still more funding options, but they must choose something.

“The consequences of inaction are clear and predictable,” wrote the task force, “deterioration of roads and bridges; reduced highway safety; the posting or closing of bridges; increased traffic congestion; increased vehicle upkeep; and, a loss of economic competitiveness. Secondary roads with low traffic volumes may have to be returned to “tar and gravel” status. If the decline is allowed to continue, congestion and load restrictions will result in irreparable damage to the state’s economy.”

This situation has made it onto neither the Republican nor the Democratic legislative agenda, and there’s been little appetite for seriously addressing the situation. But we cannot continue to blithely ignore our deteriorating roads and just assume that they will somehow magically fix themselves, without a concerted effort to pay for their upkeep.

Haley, pointing to the link between infrastructure and job retention and creation, said on Wednesday of the state’s needs, “it’s time to make that a priority.”

We agree and hope she’s serious. The task force’s report said it well:

“The time for action is now, before the decline of the highway system becomes irreversible.”

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