South Carolina’s transportation secretary warns the state is still under-funding its road maintenance work, even with $4 billion in new construction money over the next decade.
Secretary Christy Hall told the state’s Transportation Commission last week that the repairs which will be possible with the additional money approved by legislators this past year are such a small percentage of the need — so small that the general population may not even notice a difference.
Legislators this year approved up to $4 billion in borrowing to pay for construction over the next decade, financing it with $200 million in various Department of Motor Vehicles fees that have the ability to be bonded. But South Carolina’s needs are closer to $40 billion over the next 20 years, according to previous state Department of Transportation (SCDOT) estimates.
Hall warned commissioners the lack of new funding in recent years has led to a drop in construction companies and contractors bidding on SCDOT projects, meaning costs could go up. “We’re starting to see limited bids, bids higher than we anticipated or no bids on projects,” she said at last week’s meeting. “It’s not at a rampant level right now. But it’s certainly something that we’ve noticed an increase.”
Hall said part of the problem is that legislators are budgeting different amounts of money each year depending on how much they can get approved. “We’ve been consistently inconsistent,” she said. “And our contractors view that. So there’s got to be some stability to that market.”
Commission members agreed the agency is not meeting the massive backlog of needed repairs. Chairman Mike Wooten said he’s also seen a reduction in the number of contractors applying for SCDOT projects. He voiced support for a 10 cents per-gallon increase in South Carolina’s 17-cent gas tax to raise additional funds. However, he admitted that likely would not be nearly enough money.
“We got in this hole gradually,” he said. “We need to claw our way out of this hole gradually, instead of trying to jump out.”
Fellow Commissioner Robby Robbins said the maintenance backlog will not go away unless SCDOT works with local governments to transfer ownership of at least some mileage from its 41,500 miles of roads. “It’s not going to get any better. And, to me, it makes no sense for a state agency to be handling these roads that don’t carry anybody.”
South Carolina has the nation’s fourth-largest road network, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Hall said SCDOT will begin crafting ten-year plans on a regular basis to help lawmakers realize how much in additional money is needed to pay for specific projects. The agency did that for the first time this past year, providing legislators with information sheets outlining which infrastructure projects could be done with certain levels of funding.