One idea for improving the roads is to have counties and cities take back the maintenance of some of the smaller ones.
Columbia, SC - The poor condition of South Carolina roads has caused at least one fatality and numerous injuries, along with car repair bills from blown tires, dented rims, and broken windshields. If you've ever wondered why the state's roads are in such bad shape, one reason is that South Carolina has the fourth-largest state maintained road system in the nation but the third-lowest gas tax to pay for that maintenance.
Of the 41,444 miles of state-maintained roads in South Carolina, 47 percent are considered to be in "poor" condition, and 19 percent are considered "substandard." While the SCDOT maintains 63 percent of the roads in the state, most other states maintain 19 percent, on average.
The reason why South Carolina has such a large system that's maintained by the state goes back to before there were cars, according to historian John Hammond Moore, who wrote a book about the history of the state's roads. As a rural state that relied on agriculture, the state built roads to get farmers' crops to markets.
Once cars came along, counties didn't always have the money to build good roads. "It was politics, to a great extent," Moore says. "Individual politicians or powerful politicians were trying to help their areas," by getting their local roads paved by the state. That won loyalty from voters.
And while the SCDOT has to maintain so many miles of roads, South Carolina politicians rarely raise taxes. The state's gas tax of 16 cents a gallon hasn't been raised since 1987, while the number of cars on the roads has multiplied and, since those cars get much better gas mileage, the number of gallons sold hasn't kept pace.
Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, chairman of the House committee that writes the state budget, got a plan put in the House budget that would encourage counties and cities to do that.
So, for example, if a county agreed to take over a half-mile stretch of road, the state would send the county the money that road would need for maintenance. White says that would make the roads better because counties have a better idea of which roads are most in need of work, and the counties would then have that state money.
"That road may not need to be maintained for awhile due to the traffic count on it. It (the county) may want to do it. Some you may want to take and then decide, well, now that we've got it in our system, that road's not needed; let's close the road. That option's there. We didn't take that away from them. But they still get the money because they took the road out of the system," he says.
So a county would get money from the state for a specific road but could then use that money for any county road that needed work.
But Spartanburg County Council chairman Jeff Horton is skeptical. He says, "We do not want to assume the state roads because a), they're in too bad a shape, b) we know they're not going to send us the money because they don't have the money. If they did, I implore them, why don't you go ahead and repair the roads?"
The Senate took that county buy-back plan out of its version of the budget, but it could be put back in when the House and Senate work out a final budget.
The South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads is made up of groups like the South Carolina Trucking Association, businesses and chambers of commerce. Last year, the group pushed lawmakers to move $600 million from the regular budget to roads.
But that's not a long-term solution, says Bill Ross, executive director of the group. "There's no real simple answer to it," he says.
Even raising the gas tax alone isn't the answer. An increase of 10 cents a gallon would bring in an about $300 million, but the state DOT says it needs about $1.5 billion more a year just to bring roads and bridges up to good condition.
Ross says it will take a combination of things like using general fund money, tying the gas tax to inflation, and adding or raising fees like the driver's license fee, registration fee, or adding a new road safety fee to car insurance policies.
Some counties already have their own road maintenance fees. For example, Spartanburg County residents pay $25 per car per year to maintain county roads. Spartanburg County maintains the most road mileage of any county in the state.
The county decides which roads to repair using that money based on traffic and the type of road. The county compiles a repair list each April that's sent out for bids. Paving is usually done from July through November.
You can find which counties charge road maintenance fees here: http://www.sccounties.org/Data/Sites/1/media/publications/property-tax-report-2013.pdf
You can compare state gas taxes here:
North Carolina has the largest state-maintained road system in the country, but its gas tax is 21 cents a gallon higher than South Carolina's.