If officials took the $48.3 billion they say is needed to fix the state's roads and bridges over the next 20 years, they could spend $1.1 million on every mile of state-maintained roads.
COLUMBIA – The $48.3 billion officials say is needed over the next 20 years to fix the state's roads and bridges amounts to $1.1 million for every mile of state-maintained road in the state.
No one is suggesting the state spend more than $1 million on every mile of road in South Carolina.
, includes a variety of projects, from simple maintenance and road widening to premium transit and passenger rail service, costly bridge repairs and major interstate upgrades, according to planning documents and some of those who helped prepare them.
So as the state Senate prepares to debate a transportation funding bill, The Greenville News set out to break down the numbers.
Mark Pleasant, planning director for the state Department of Transportation, said it's easy to quibble with individual projects in the agency's $48.3 billion road plan "based on your perception of what's a need and what's a wish list."
"What we have attempted to do is (say) 'Here is the vision for what the transportation system should be 20 years from now,'" he said.
Breaking it down
Of the $48.3 billion, $3.9 billion is for projected mass transit needs, $1.4 billion is for premium transit and passenger rail service, $1 billion is for safety improvements and $3 billion is for bridge upgrades. All of that totals $9.3 billion.
Of the remaining $39 billion, $17 billion is projected for highway maintenance, $11 billion for widening and paving some of the state's 842 miles of interstates and $11 billion to fund every item on the state's 20 local or regional planning agencies' long-term wish lists.
For the $17 billion in highway maintenance, the DOT plan calls for spending $850 million annually for 20 years. That compares with the 2013-14 DOT budget that allocates $281 million each year for maintenance. Maintenance includes filling potholes, installing signs and traffic signals, cutting grass and patching roads.
David Cook, state maintenance engineer for DOT, said the agency continually evaluates deterioration of the road system with specially equipped vans that use lasers and other machines to measure a road's roughness, ruts, bumps and distresses and then stores the data in computers.
Software allows engineers to compile the status reports for the system and what it would take to improve its condition.
DOT officials note that road upgrades, repairs and maintenance aren't cheap. The cost of a new lane mile can be about $2 million. A new interchange can range from $30 million to $55 million on highways and up to $200 million for interstate interchanges. Traffic signals cost $80,000 to $100,000, while overhead interstate signs can cost as much as $120,000.
Officials project the state will receive $19 billion over that 20-year span for transportation needs, leaving lawmakers to come up with the remaining $29.3 billion.
Those numbers are expected to become part of the debate soon on the Senate floor, as senators wrestle with a transportation funding bill that at a minimum would spend $41 million in vehicle sales tax revenue next year to help leverage more bonds at the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank, providing as much as $500 million more for road and bridge needs.
Some want to raise the state's gas tax, last increased in 1987. Gov. Nikki Haley has vowed to veto any such increase. She suggests dedicating annual surpluses averaging more than $100 million to fund roads and bridges.
Sen. Ray Cleary, a Georgetown Republican who is spearheading the bill for more road funding, said that the $48 billion anticipates changes in population and road traffic, and would raise the state's transportation system from a "D" to a "C" classification for level of service.
Looking ahead 20 years, Cleary said, means thinking about widening Interstate 26 to three lanes in each direction, adding another bypass and addressing the I-26 and I-20 interchange near Columbia known by locals as Malfunction Junction.
"But more importantly, even if you put a road in, every five to seven years you are going to have to repave it," he said. "So you have those ongoing costs in that number."
And Cleary notes that funding the projected $29.3 billion shortfall means coming up with another $1.4 billion each year. Last year the Legislature allocated an extra $141 million in a bid to leverage more than $600 million in road and bridge spending, much of it on just five interstate projects.
Bill Ross, the executive director of the group South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads, said the eye-popping numbers issued by the state task force caused his group and a business coalition to come up with a more pragmatic approach.
"Legislators' eyes just glazed over," he recalled. "We just felt that with so big a number, we needed to focus on something more doable."
So the coalition issued a report estimating the state's top priorities at $600 million per year over 10 years. That includes $2 billion for bridges, $2.8 billion for interstate segments and $1.2 billion for resurfacing, with $50 million split each year among the state's 46 counties.
The bridge work would fix 416 load-restricted bridges and 884 structurally deficient bridges, while the interstate work would pay for 11 projects, primarily along I-26, I-85 and I-20, according to the report, titled "A Road Map to the Future."
Some of those are being addressed with the latest round of funding, including several projects widening or improving I-85 in the Upstate.
"I would think a basic survival plan is how we ought to characterize that," Rick Todd, president and CEO of the S.C. Trucking Association, said of the coalition's proposal. "Anything better than that would help us compete economically and improve our quality of life."
Todd described the $600 million as addressing the state's "basic, pressing priorities."
"There's always a big difference, I think, between what is wanted and what is truly needed," he said, noting that the state cannot afford what some are defining as "needs."
"Do you really and truly need to fix every single bridge that may rarely have any substantial traffic over it or was built a long time ago and is not of statewide significance today?" he asked, extending the same argument to some road projects.
Otis Rawl, president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, which approved the coalition's $600 million annual figure, said the business community wants to reach a number for transportation needs that both the public and the Legislature can support.
"We're trying to be rational in this whole request," he said. "What we're looking for is the maintenance of our major roads right now and our interstates. And if we get that, then as we move forward we can start looking at these other projects. We just felt it was unreasonable to ask the General Assembly and the public to pay $1.4 billion a year for everything that was on that wish list."
He said because a number of counties in the state have approved a local option sales tax penny for use on local road projects, the business community felt the state's focus should be on major thoroughfares used for commerce.
The Transportation Department's Pleasant says DOT is already at work on its next long-range transportation plan, which will look at needs through 2040.
Because of its longer time horizon, he said it's likely the costs will be higher. Rising gas prices, for example, increase the cost of road paving because petroleum is a key part of asphalt, according to DOT.
Todd said that regardless of the figure that lawmakers or business officials arrive at for meeting the state's needs, the price tag won't be a small one and won't shrink.
"We were trying to deal with what is possible, a figure that they could come to without tremendous pain," he said. "But it's still going to cost."
Here is the link to the 2008 DOT plan that contains the 20-year estimates for improving the state's infrastructure system: