‘Prosperity depends on it’: SC, York County leaders say more road funding a priority

SC transportation secretary Christy Hall on York County roads

South Carolina Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall on roads in the York County SC area. Rock Hill, Fort Mill and elsewhere are growing.
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South Carolina Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall on roads in the York County SC area. Rock Hill, Fort Mill and elsewhere are growing.

State transportation leaders say they see York County’s growth, and they’re looking for funding to help.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the growth of this state,” said Christy Hall, state transportation secretary. “Our prosperity depends on it.”

York County and Indian Land elected leaders and municipal planners told top state transportation officials the current models for improving roads aren’t working in areas where new people arrive daily.

“We have a set of rules at the federal and state level that I don’t think work very well in growth areas because of the length of time to put projects on the ground,” said Rock Hill City Council member Jim Reno during the Feb. 22 Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study meeting in Rock Hill.

Reno suggested finding new ways to get road work done faster. He watched a scroll of transportation department data detailing road conditions statewide. By several metrics, York County fares better than the state or goals for improvement.

“I get a lot of complaints about our local roads,” Reno said. “So that stood out the most. If we’re above the goal, but yet we’re getting complaints, I can’t square that.”

York County Council chairman Michael Johnson and Fort Mill Mayor Guynn Savage said there is a need to be more proactive acquiring right-of-way for road projects to avoid the high cost of relocating utilities when the same road will need improvement multiple times to meet growth demands.

“We as a group have collectively determined that we need to be more aggressive in ensuring that as we go out to purchase right-of-way or have plans for egress, whatever, that we are looking to the future and not having to redo something,” Savage said.

RFATS Director David Hooper said poor road conditions in high-growth areas aren’t necessarily a sign of poor planning. York County’s Pennies for Progress program, the voter-approved cent sales to pay for roads, is the main reason conditions are as good locally.

“We can be making the right operational improvements, but when you’re growing at 40 and 50 percent a year, you may have less reliable conditions,” Hooper said. “You’ve got a much higher level of demand coming into the region.”

Federal money goes to South Carolina Department of Transportation, which then allocates it to metropolitan planning organizations such as RFATS. Funding is based on population and operating conditions.

“The challenges and where there may become a blind spot is that we don’t have any variables that I think clearly correlate to areas with very high growth rates,” Hooper said. “And therefore, their need for funding may be higher.”

Hall believes it.

“We realize that there’s a funding issue for widening projects outside of the interstates,” she said.

State leaders made a policy decision to let local governments, such as RFATS and similar planning organizations, make decisions on where best to spend the money. Yet, she said, those groups don’t have the funds they need.

“It’s the one area that’s been left out,” Hall said. “It’s been stagnate. We recognize it. We understand it. We appreciate it. We’re going to fight for you.”

A 2017 road bill in South Carolina raised the gas tax, creating an expectation of new revenue. But high-growth areas aren’t the only needs.

“It’s very heavily focused on maintenance of the existing system — safety projects, bridge projects, paving projects, some interstate projects that we probably should have done 10 years ago,” Hall said. “But what it does not fund is non-interstate type widening projects. Intersection improvement projects, signalization projects, those type of things.”

Hall met with officials in Washington, D.C., asking for a federal road program to be renewed or expanded, saying federal money is critical to South Carolina’s transportation needs.

She said she would recommend any new money that isn’t earmarked for another use be considered for organizations like RFATS and making high-growth areas part of the equation.

“High-growth area is definitely one thing we’re looking at,” said SCDOT deputy secretary Jim Feda. “What we don’t want to do is make changes without additional funding for (planning organizations). If we were to redistribute funding right now, we’re going to have losers to have winners.”

Feda has been charged with looking at criteria for dispersing new funds. The state’s current long-range plan has a $42 million gap, he said, where groups like RFATS are funded now and how they should be.

“Where will that funding come from?” he said. “We’re still looking for that.”

The state distributes $138 million in guideshare funding each year to metro planning groups. That number hasn’t changed since 2012.

“Right now funding is distributed solely based on population,” Feda said. “So we’re looking at other things. Percent growth is a criteria we definitely need to look at.”

Feda said a maintenance tax credit sunsetting in 2023 could free up $115 million in new money. Hall’s most recent proposal would put $80 million toward rural interstate freight mobility and $15 for highway investment.

State leaders working through new federal safety and performance standards say it helps them if groups like RFATS get the funding they need.

“To achieve our federal targets, we need your assistance,” Feda told the RFATS group. “If we’re expecting you to help, we’ve got to try to find additional funding for you.”

Along with funding changes, some officials want to look at the options.

“As elected officials in a growth area,” Reno said, “there’s a lot of pressure to bring projects forward that meet demand.”

How York County fares

A sampling of SCDOT data shows how RFATS and South Carolina fare in several areas:

Statewide, there were 1,037 traffic fatalities in 2018. The five-year average is 985 fatalities.

There were 2,820 listed “serious” injuries in 2018, down from the five-year average of 3,001.

Non-motorized fatalities and serious injuries were fairly even in 2018 compared to the five-year average. There were 385 cases compared to an average of 371.

In the RFATS area, 2012-2016 data shows areas where this region fares better.

2012-16 Safety Targets Annual averages among 21 South Carolina study areas. Rates are per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
Traffic Fatalities Fatality Rate Severe Injuries Severe Injury Rate Non-Motorized Fatalities/Severe Injuries
RFATS 20 1.14 95.4 5.41 8
State Rank 4 1 8 10 9
South Carolina 890.2 1.75 3,194.40 6.3 376.4

Road conditions vary. In some areas, RFATS fares better than state averages, and in some areas worse.

Statewide, 61 percent of the interstate pavement is considered in good condition, compared to 97 percent in RFATS area. No interstate pavement in the RFATS area is considered in poor condition.

RFATS interstate pavement in good condition is well above the Columbia (70 percent), Greenville (69 percent), Spartanburg (67 percent) and Charleston (52 percent) area rates. The 97 percent in RFATS is well above the four-year statewide target of 71 percent.

Just 4 percent of non-interstate highway pavement in RFATs area is in good condition compared to statewide, which is three times higher. Non-interstate pavement is about three times worse when it comes to pavement in poor condition, at almost 8 percent.

RFATS joins the Greenville, Columbia and Spartanburg areas at less than 4 percent good non-interstate highway pavement. The two-year state goal is more than three times higher than what RFATS sees now. The four-year goal is more than five times higher.

The two- and four-year state goals for non-interstate highway pavement in poor condition are almost half what RFATS sees today. Still, the RFATS rate of less than 8 percent is well below the Greenville, Columbia and Spartanburg areas.

The 23 percent of highway bridges in RFATS area in good condition is well below the state at almost 42 percent. But, the area has less than 2 percent of its highway bridges in poor condition, compared to more than 4 percent statewide.

Only the Charleston area ranks lower than RFATS on highway bridges in good condition. State goals are twice what RFATS sees now. RFATS does have fewer bridges in poor condition compared to the other large municipal areas and state.

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John Marks covers community growth, municipalities and general news mainly in the Fort Mill and York County areas. He began writing for the Herald and sister papers in 2005 and won dozens of South Carolina Press Association and other awards since.

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