The average person might not know whether a street is maintained by the state or local government. But to the officials who have to find the money to keep roads paved and pothole-free, who is on the hook can make all the difference.
That tension may lead to a change in how almost half the state’s roads are managed.
For South Carolina, which, despite its small size, maintains the fourth largest state road network in the country, shedding responsibility for some of the smaller roads would free the Department of Transportation to focus on the state’s major arteries and thoroughfares.
But to county leaders, who already feel they don’t receive the state funding they’re entitled to, maintaining those roads would mean taking on a mandate the state should be funding.
“If they do the same with the (state road maintenance) C-Funds that they do with the local government fund, they’ll leave us with the roads and no funding to maintain them,” said Steve Willis, a Lancaster County administrator.
State legislators are looking at ways to reform the state’s road system to better meet South Carolina’s strained infrastructure needs.
State Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, is chairing committee hearings this month to flesh out a reform plan, with one focus in particular being the transfer of some of the 41,000 miles of roads in the state system to local control.
“This will get us back to the roads that are of major significance in the current system,” Simrill said of the proposal to move some of the state’s 18,000 miles of “secondary” roads to the county maintenance system. “The main arteries will stay part of the state system, but we’re talking about some of the smaller roads that counties could have a better ability to handle resurfacing.”
The size of the state system has limited South Carolina’s ability to maintain its roads to the same standard. Simrill knows of one House colleague who lives on a half-mile, dead-end road with 23 people on it maintained by the state.
"It’s slated for resurfacing in 2107,” he said.
To get counties to agree to the proposal, Simrill hopes to offer them “a carrot” in funding: replacing the state gas tax with a fuel sales tax that may increase the dollars available for road maintenance; ensuring counties get their full share of the local government fund; and offering voters the option of a statewide penny sales tax to fund transportation needs in a 2016 referendum.
York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell may be an ally for Simrill’s effort to move some roads to the county’s plate, if the plan is fully funded.
“I have no problem with it, as long as the funds are there,” he said. “The bottom line is that roads have to be addressed sooner or later.”
York County already has crews working on some of the 1,358 miles of state-maintained roads running through the county, if they were included in the “Pennies for Progress” program.
Lancaster County also is working on state roads through its own penny tax.
Blackwell hopes Pennies for Progress can serve as a model for how state and county transportation officials can work together.
“One thing Pennies for Progress shows the state is that we can be a team player,” he said.
Other leaders are less willing to take on extra mileage.
Chester County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey said based on how previous promises of state aid have played out, he “(doesn’t) want anything to do with state roads.”
“In the last five or six years,” Roddey said, “we’ve been shorted $6 (million) or $7 million,” of the amount Chester County is owed from the state’s local government formula. “And under Act 388, we can’t raise anything.”
Lancaster County Council Chairman Larry McCullough worries that roads the state can’t afford to work on now will be just as short of funding if they become the county’s responsibility.
“Because these roads have not been repaired for so long, the time when it would be inexpensive to fix has come and gone. Now, it will be more expensive,” McCullough said. “Because folks have not been attentive for so long, it’s become a bigger problem.”
Willis said if the Legislature wants to give county councils the responsibility for these roads, they also must be given more power to control funding and prioritize roads. Currently, road repairs in Lancaster County are determined by a separate, legislator-appointed transportation committee.
Still, McCullough said county officials will be willing to work with state legislators to come to a workable solution.
“Sometimes, your only choices are to take the least bad option,” he said.