- Special Sections
- Public Notices
Roads have come a long way during the last century.
Flash back to what road travel was like 100 years ago, where assembly lines were quickly churning out Henry Ford’s Model T, asphalt concrete was still about a decade away from being used as pavement and the Interstate Highway System had yet to be conceived.
Now instead of peering into the past, leap forward to what roads might look like in 2112.
Some people may dream of futuristic devices, such as automated highways or Marty McFly’s flying Delorean from Back to the Future.
But for others, 100 years in the future may just mean when some of the county’s roads are finally due to be paved.
John McCarter, an engineer with S.C. Department of Transportation’s District 4, which includes Lancaster County, said this is a possible scenario, a result of limited funding for resurfacing and preserving roads throughout the county and state.
“We simply can’t afford to do what as engineers we know needs to be done. At current levels of funding and just paving the roads on the candidate list, it would take us over 60 years at today’s prices,” McCarter said. “That doesn’t include roads that will continually be added to the needs list over those 60 years or inflation in paving cost. To make the cycle and pave all roads, it would take well over 100 years to get around to all roads.”
McCarter said the state owns and maintains about 897 miles of road in Lancaster County, of which about 56 percent, or 499 miles, are eligible for federal funding. The remaining 44 percent, or 398 miles of road, are not eligible for federal dollars and must be funded by the state.
The majority of SCDOT’s funds, he said, are received from the state through its gas tax, which is 16 cents on each gallon of gas sold, though McCarter believes the amount is not enough to cover the exhaustive list of roads in need of repair.
A few years ago McCarter’s department was required to select, based on engineering criteria, all roads eligible for resurfacing, thus creating a list of candidates for both the federally eligible and non-federally eligible routes. He said the lists were made up of roads with pavement conditions that fell below a certain threshold called the Pavement Quality Index, which is based on certain engineering factors such as the roughness of the road, rutting and cracking. In Lancaster County, about 24 percent of the federal routes and 58 percent of the state routes were determined to be eligible candidates for resurfacing, though that totaled a hefty price tag of about $100 million.
But for the last few years, resurfacing funding has only been available for federally eligible routes. Even more staggering, he said, was that federal funds received for Lancaster County have been about $1.5 million a year, just enough to resurface or repair about six to eight miles of road each year.
Funding for county roads
When it comes to county roads, there are two sources of funding for road work.
One is the state’s C Fund program, which is money collected through the state gas tax. County Administrator Steve Willis said on average this fund collects about $1 million each year for Lancaster County. About 75 percent of this money is allocated for large repairs and resurfacing based on selections by the County Transportation Committee, an independent body dedicated to identifying county roads most in need of repairs. The remaining 25 percent of the money is allocated for state roads.
Another source of funding for the county’s Public Works Department comes from the general fund in the county’s budget, allocating money for purchasing asphalt and other materials.
Willis sighed as he glanced at the funding allocated for the roads and bridges line item in the county’s fiscal year 2012-13 budget – a total of $2.2 million.
That funding is a combination of general tax dollars and the county’s road fee, which is $20 a year for residents, but will rise to $25 in January. Willis said the road fee generates about $1.5 million, with the rest supplemented with taxpayer money.
And though it sounds like a lot of money, Willis warns that the amount must cover fuel for equipment, raw materials and personnel.
He uses the example of a long-desired bridge along Gills Creek Drive near the Buford community to drive his point home. For years, county officials have discussed building a bridge to keep annual flooding from trapping residents on either side of the washed-out road. The only problem is that a bridge is estimated to cost about $1.5 million.
“So a bridge for Gills Creek would take three-fourths of our budget,” Willis said. “Consider that our construction pipe budget, just to buy pipe, is $100,000. To buy stone for gravel roads is $350,000 and that’s just material costs.”
Back to dirt
In a column to The Lancaster News, Sen. Greg Gregory pointed to diminished funding as a key contributor to the county’s crumbling roads.
Gregory said South Carolina has the fourth lowest gas tax in the country, which has not changed in years and cannot keep up with rising resurfacing costs.
Looking at funding numbers, Gregory said the county receives very little funding for its state roads each year, even though the cost of resurfacing averages $300,000 per mile of road.
He suggests several solutions, including implementing a program similar to York County’s Pennies for Progress, which is a capital-projects sales tax, or getting the state Legislature to allow counties to implement local fuel taxes to help supplement road funds.
Based on Gregory’s statistics, Willis suggests it could take even longer than McCarter predicted to resurface all of the county’s roads.
“Given current conditions, we are on schedule to resurface state roads once every 200 years,” Willis said. “It is worse on the county end as county roads don’t receive the funding the state roads do. I know in the Midwest where some states have begun to transition lightly used paved roads back to dirt roads due to lack of maintenance funding and an unwillingness to raise taxes to take care of roads.”
Contributing to the problem, the state will no longer accept new roads, instead putting the burden on counties, Willis said.
“We have no dedicated maintenance funding other than the much-hated road fee and per state law are prohibited from developing any funding source unless specifically approved by the state Legislature,” Willis said. “The road funding and maintenance system in S.C. is a mess and isn’t going to get better until the Legislature gets serious about infrastructure maintenance.
“My personal prediction is that will happen just after comprehensive tax reform is passed, which is currently scheduled to happen the day after never.”
COMING FRIDAY, SEPT.14: Where do we go for paving solutions and alternatives?
Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416