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Consider serious options for improving our roads

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John Baker

During the last few months, there have been several letters to the editor in respect to the deplorable condition of the roads in Lancaster County.

None of us are happy with the deteriorating pavement, potholes and the increasingly questionable safety of the bridges, small and large.

However, before we can come to terms with the problem and enact a solution, we must first come to terms with the costs to be incurred (i.e., what is the real cost of road maintenance).

A couple of years ago I queried the Lancaster County Department of Roads and Bridges, as well as the S.C. Department of Transportation, from which I obtained the following statistics:

County roads

• 300 miles are paved

• 700 miles are unpaved

State roads

• 870 miles are paved

• 30 miles are unpaved

At that same time, I questioned the cost of paving, and received the following cost estimates:

County standards

• One mile of paving a new road costs $350,000

• One mile of repaving an existing road costs $175,000

State standards

I did not obtain paving cost estimates for paving to state standards, which are more stringent than county standards. However, for the purpose of this analysis I am going to use the following cost estimates:

• One mile of paving a new road costs $500,000

• One mile of repaving an existing road costs $250,000

Using the cost estimates given above, the costs to be incurred in repaving every paved road in Lancaster County are: State roads – $217,500,00, county roads – $52,500,000, for a grand total of $270 million.

If we want to repave every paved road once every 30 years, then we are looking at an annual cost of $9 million.

If we want to repave every paved road once every 15 years, which is what is needed, then we are looking at an annual cost of $18 million.

Now that we know what it costs, what are our potential revenue source?

First, we have the road maintenance fee. Currently set at $15 per vehicle per year (it may be going to $20 per vehicle per year), each $5 increment generates roughly $300,000 per year. To fund road maintenance to the degree necessary to repave every paved road once every 30 years, the road maintenance fee would have to be set to $150 per vehicle.

I can’t imagine a road maintenance fee of $150 per vehicle per year being palatable to very many residents. It certainly is not to me.

An alternative funding formula would be to provide for a 1 percent sales tax, to be enacted when the costs incurred in the construction of the new Lancaster County Courthouse have been paid in full.  This sales tax would generate about $6.5 million per year. In conjunction with a $45 per vehicle per year road maintenance fee, which would generate about $2.7 million, the total revenue stream would be about $9.2 million, which is sufficient to repave all of the paved roads once every 30 years.

The only other funding formula I can think of would be to use property taxes. However, using property taxes would entail increasing the county millage rate by 36 mills, which is equal to a net increase of $144 per year on a home valued at $100,000. 

I would certainly not advocate the use of property taxes, and I cannot imagine that any current or potential member of the Lancaster County Council would advocate the use of property taxes.

I am not particularly fond of any of these proposals. However, given the unpalatable alternative of having our roads revert to dirt, I will take a 1 percent sales tax and a $45 per vehicle per year road maintenance fee.

I will add that Lancaster County should not take any more roads into the county road system. We simply cannot afford to do so.

Well there you have it. Those are our options, at least insofar as I can see. If you have another funding formula to lay on the table, then please do so. The only way that we are going to address these problems is for each of us to take the time and make the effort to put forward ideas for the rest of us to consider.

I expect that there will be those who will not want to believe the cost estimates I have provided.  That is fine. I encourage everyone to contact your County Council members and your state delegation members and have them take a look. If anything, I expect they will tell you that my cost estimates are conservative.