David Hartgen, a student of highways for more than 40 years, says U.S. roads are getting better.
"It is simply a myth that the nation's highway system is crumbling," said Hartgen, the primary author of the Reason Foundation's annual report on the subject. "The highways are considerably better than they were 20 years ago. "The fatality rates have been cut in half, the percentage of deficient bridges has been cut in half, and the percentage of roads with poor pavement has been cut in half."
According to Reason's latest analysis, an extensive study of 11 roadway categories, no state is operating its roads more efficiently than South Carolina. The state ranks No. 1 in Reason's 22nd annual report — an irony in a state where the condition of roads is a heated political issue.
Roads were the dominant issue in the last two-year session of the General Assembly that ended in June. And the topic continues to dominate campaigns as Election Day approaches. State highway officials have said they need an extra $1.4 billion annually to maintain South Carolina's roads.
After an effort backed by business leaders to raise the state's 16-cent per gallon gas tax was killed by a Senate filibuster, lawmakers approved a measure this year that will finance an estimated $4 billion in road projects.
The results of the study drew a mixed reaction from South Carolina Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall.
"It doesn't necessarily mean we have the best roads in the nation," she said. "It means we're a national leader in doing more with less. But if we're spending less per mile, it means that some things just aren't getting done."
The No. 1 overall ranking was helped by the fact that the state has the lowest expenditures for capital (new and expanded) roads and the nation's fifth-lowest numbers for both maintenance and administrative costs per mile.
In terms of miles of state-maintained roads, South Carolina has the nation's fourth-highest and North Carolina has the second-highest — an element that gives the two states an efficiency advantage in a ranking of money spent per mile. At the same time, it makes them responsible for more pavement and bridges.
Hall said the fatality rate, and the No. 24 ranking in deficient bridges, "are two stats that catch my attention.
"We're definitely in the wrong place on the fatality rankings, and being in the middle of the pack on the bridges shows we need to improve there," she said.
Bridges deemed structurally deficient are safe, according to the report, but are subject to more frequent inspections and/or load restrictions.
Fritz Wewers, maintenance engineer in DOT's District 2, which includes Anderson and seven other counties, would like to see more funding from the state Legislature. He sees the report as a potential hindrance to getting it.
"The report makes us look like we're lean and efficient. But we don't have enough funding to adequately repair roads in a timely manner," he said. "We're fixing what we can, as fast as we can. But we're not repaving enough roads every year to keep up."
The abundance of state-maintained roads forces the state to stretch road dollars too far, Wewers said.
"The interstates were built in the 1960s and they were designed to last 50 years. So we're on borrowed time," he said. "And bridges will be a critical issue in a few years."
Wewers agreed with the report that most of South Carolina's roads meet the 12-foot lane standard, but believes they are increasingly less safe because manufacturers of trucks and vans are making products wider in recent years.
"The road systems were not designed for the newer, bigger vehicles," Wewers said.
South Carolina is the only southeastern state ranked in the top 10 by the Reason Foundation, which has compiled an annual study since 1995. Its latest report is based on information submitted to the federal government in 2013, the most recent year with complete data available, and relies on Texas A&M University research for part of its ratings.
South Carolina was ranked No. 4 last year in the study, and No. 5 in 2014.
Georgia, meanwhile, fell from 13th to 21st in the latest study. North Carolina is ranked 15th.
Midwestern states dominated the top 10. South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska rounded out the top four, followed in order by Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Ohio and Mississippi. The worst ratings belonged to Alaska (50th), New Jersey (49th) and Hawaii (48th).
South Carolina is the leader in four cost-efficiency categories, and the condition of its roads are among the nation's top 11 in three categories. South Carolina gets high marks in pavement conditions of rural primary roads (7th best in the country), rural interstate roads (9th) and urban interstate roads (11th). The state also gets better-than-average grades on urban congestion (17th).
As has been the case in previous studies, the state is among the nation's worst in terms of the rate of highway fatalities (47th).
None of the rankings surprised Hall, in part because South Carolina traditionally ranks high in surveys by the Reason Foundation and other organizations. In recent years, the state fared well in ratings by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the National Motorist Association.
Hall, a native of Lowndesville in rural Abbeville County, points out that the fatality-rate ranking is poor in part because the state has a high number of rural traffic fatalities.
"Right now, we're looking into the data ... to determine what is causing that," she said. "The best opportunity to do that is by keeping the vehicles on the road. We're putting together a plan, the Rural Road Safety program, that will create better shoulders, add more rumble strips, and eliminate more trees near the road."
"About 25 percent of fatalities involving vehicles dropping off the pavement," Hall said, "and that's an area we can improve."
She hopes a recently-devised plan, scheduled for implementation next year, will improve the bridge ratings.
"I believe in a 10-year period, we'll be able to cut in half the number of structurally deficient bridges," Hall said. "Across the state, we've identified more than 500 of those that have been targeted over the next 10 years."
That list includes 13 bridges in Anderson County that are either rated structurally deficient or load-restricted. One of those, a bridge on Little Beaverdam Creek, is on a high-priority list. All 13 are scheduled for replacement in the next five years.
Hartgen, a retired UNC-Charlotte transportation professor, said
the report typically gets a surprised reaction from motorists in states that grade well.
."Wherever you live, I think there's a tendency to think your roads are bad," Hartgen said. "What the driver sees is a pothole; he knows the road needs repaired. He has no way to compare it to roads on the other side of the country. That's one of the values of the study."
Hartgen, who helped manage New York's highway system for 20 years before joining the UNC-Charlotte transportation faculty, said the data shows that South Carolina road maintenance officials "have a very large system, the fourth-largest in the country, and they're managing it with less than $1.5 billion each year. In terms of spending, they're doing a better job than anyone else in making the dollars stretch."
Hartgen said the study "not only tries to put together a picture of the condition of roads and bridges, but it involves the questions your mom would ask — how much does it cost and how good is the product? All citizens should care about those basic questions, and this provides an overall picture that does that."
In the meantime, he understands the universal reaction to potholes.
"When I see the 'crumbling roads' reports, it makes my eyeballs roll," Hartgen said. "It's a myth. I'm surprised that so many are assured that the infrastructure is going to Hades in a handcart, because it simply isn't true. Overall, our roads are better now than they were five years ago and 20 years ago."
Reason Foundation Top 10
1 South Carolina
2 South Dakota
7 North Dakota
Total disbursements/mile 1st
Bridge disbursements/mile 1st
Maintenance dispursements/mile 5th
Administrative disbursements/mile 5th
rural interstate pavement, % poor condition 9th
Rural other principal roads, % poor condition 7th
Urban interstate pavement, % poor condition 11th
Urbanized traffic congestion, delay/commuter 17th
Bridges, % deficient 24th
Fatality rate/vehicle miles 47th