The road to better infrastructure along the Grand Strand and the entire 7th Congressional District is being blocked because of “intervening group(s)” who could end up filing lawsuits, according to the district’s new representative on the S.C. Department of Transportation commission.
Mike Wooten said said facing and resolving that issue is just one of his priorities as the commissioner in the new 7th district, which includes Horry and Georgetown counties.
Wooten, of Murrells Inlet, was chosen as the seventh member of the state DOT commission last week. There are several priorities Wooten has for his new post. The question of how to avoid a lawsuit associated with a road project is one he wants to answer.
“What can we do to prevent them, one way or the other?” he said.
Wooten said the frustration comes from getting necessary permits for a project, and a group raises a complaint just before the work is set to begin. Sometimes that leads to lawsuits that can delay a project for years.
How much money is spent battling lawsuits can vary, Wooten said. It can be as high as 30 percent of the total project cost, he added, or as low as four or five percent.
Mike Barbee, with the SC DOT, said he is not aware of any lawsuits filed in reference to road projects in Horry County.
But on large-scale projects such as the proposed Interstate 73, the threat of litigation is always there, Barbee added.
Making I-73 a priority
Keeping road projects moving along isn’t the only priority Wooten has for his term; he also wants to be persistent in supporting I-73 and seeing it built.
Proponents of I-73 say the interstate would bring in 29,000 new jobs and expand the Grand Strand’s tourism-based economy, as well as providing adequate escape routes in the event a hurricane strike.
“We have a duty to provide the infrastructure for the safety of those who come and vacation with us,” state Rep. Alan Clemmons, chairman of the National I-73 Corridor Association, has said.
Clemmons predicts it would take eight years at least for the interstate to be built.
“Obviously, that’s not going to occur during my term,” Wooten said.
Something he would like to see in his term is more funding for road maintenance.
South Carolina has the fourth-largest number of lane miles of roads maintained by the Department of Transportation, Wooten said. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the state is third from the bottom in funding for that maintenance.
“There needs to be a funding mechanism that is sustainable,” he said.
One way to do that, Wooten said, is raising the state’s gas tax, which is currently 16 cents per gallon. That amount is more than 50 percent less than the 37.5 cents North Carolina charges.
Wooten added there are methods to sustain a road maintenance fund, but he didn’t want to get into them.
Steven Gosnell, director of Horry County Infrastructure and Regulation, said funding is the big problem from an infrastructure perspective.
“We can fix a lot of things, but unfortunately, the cost of what we do is very expensive,” Gosnell said.
Horry County took it upon themselves to fund a lot of its infrastructure through the one-cent capital project sales tax that voters approved in 2006. The county is expected to receive over $425 million by the time sales tax expires in 2014.
That money has funded such projects as the Aynor Overpass and the overpass work currently being done at the U.S. 17/Farrow Parkway intersection at the backgate.
However, as the county continues growing, road maintenance needs will continue to grow as well.
“Infrastructure’s going to continue to age. Funding is a huge issue,” Gosnell said.
Gosnell, who worked with Wooten for five years at the new commissioner’s company, DDC Engineers in Myrtle Beach, said Wooten “will be a benefit to the county.”
Could Wooten’s day job with the engineering firm represent a conflict of interest with his new duties?
Wooten says no: His company has no plans to do work for the state DOT.
“We don’t specialize in highway design or construction,” he said.
According to the company’s website, DDC Engineers is a consulting engineering firm specializing in land surveying, landscape architecture and environmental permitting.
Wooten did say the company does apply for DOT permits from time to time. The only conflict, he added, would be if he used his position to influence a staff member to do something they normally wouldn’t do in the permitting process.
He would never ask such a thing of a staff member, Wooten said..