South Carolina is changing the way the state does business when it comes to road construction. But what will that change mean for York County?
On Jan. 26, several South Carolina Department of Transportation officials presented a vision for the next decade of road work to the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study policy committee. It’s a group made up of mayors, elected officials and planners from Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Tega Cay, York County, Lancaster County and more.
Jim Feda, deputy secretary for SCDOT, said it’s a new day for transportation planners.
“Prior to last year, our funding for maintenance of the the road system was stagnate,” he said. “We had not had a gas tax increase in 30 years.”
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The results were evident: a worst in the country state ranking for fatality rates on its roads; no interstate widenings in a decade; an estimated 80 percent of pavement statewide — $11 billion worth — in need of repair; and, 750 structurally deficient bridges. More than 300 of them load-restrictive.
“That means they can no longer support the load they were designed for,” Feda said.
Enter state legislation to raise the gas tax 12 cents over six years. Combined with budgeting legislation from 2013 and 2016, the state is turning what at one point was a projected $1 billion annual funding deficit into plans for interstate widening, safety improvements, bridge replacements and new pavement.
“We’ve got quite a large hole to climb out of,” Feda said. “It’s going to take some years.”
All while adjusting to new federal goals tying performance metrics and accountability to projects. Or evaluating the “bang for the buck” when deciding which projects get funding, on how they improve safety, congestion and other factors.
“It’s a new way of doing business,” said Mike Sullivan, SCDOT statewide planning chief.
But, local officials want to know, will that new way lead to more work in York County?
On the map
During the next 10 years, half of the new road revenue in South Carolina will go toward resurfacing. The goal is to bring half of the 42,000 miles of road in need of resurfacing up to good condition. Rural roads will see 1,000 miles of safety features added. Another 140 miles of interstate will be improved, and 465 bridges replaced.
Those goals work out to 657 projects. Of them, 24 are in York County.
All but three of those York County projects are bridge replacements. One is an improvement of Old Nation Road, over and around Steele Creek, in Fort Mill. Another is an improvement of U.S. 321 over Allison Creek in the Clover area. The other is a safety improvement on S.C. 5 from the Cherokee and York county line to Kinglet Drive.
The transportation also has various partnerships with road funding groups like RFATS, York County’s Pennies for Progress, federal air quality grants and others. A current project viewer on the SCDOT site shows 26 projects. Bridges count for 14 of them, with eight safety work sites and four resurfacing.
Among interstates, the only three projected to see new capacity in the coming decade are I-85 from Spartanburg to North Carolina, I-26/I-20 in Columbia and I-26/I-526 in the Charleston area.
“Right now I-77 is not one of those projects we’re working on in the next 10 years,” Feda said.
It isn’t even next up, with I-95 and the Columbia to Charleston corridor as major needs without planned funding.
“These are pretty significant routes,” Feda said.
The interstate question in York County sparked a larger one for RFATS leaders.
“We’re doing more than our fair share, but we don’t seem to be showing up on a lot of those lists,” said Guynn Savage, Fort Mill mayor.
The light number of local roads in the state’s plan concerns some in the area. The state puts funding toward roads in greatest need of it, but often area roads don’t make that list because municipalities here take care of them. Like Pennies for Progress, the 1-cent sales tax York County voters impose on themselves to fund road work. Or the similar version in Lancaster County, patterned largely after Pennies.
“There is no doubt that the counties that have a sales tax (to fund road work) are a big benefit, a big help to DOT,” Feda said.
State Sen. Wes Climer, from Rock Hill, wonders whether the state road department should offer incentives to counties that pick up part of the tab through voter-approved sales tax programs.
“We are penalized for taking our own initiative on our own roads here,” he said.
Lancaster County Councilman Brian Carnes, representing the Indian Land area, asked whether match funding programs might be an option. Lancaster County is now it its second sales tax for roads period, and is seeing what York County is in its fourth.
“All the resurfacing that we’re doing, a lot of those are state roads,” Carnes said.
Feda understands the concern of sales tax projects improving roads to where the state can push them down the priority list, but said there is a tradeoff.
“You’re getting projects done a lot faster than if you waited on DOT,” he said.
State Rep. Gary Simrill, also from Rock Hill, said part of the new way of doing business with SCDOT is getting away from the “protect my people” mentality and both scoring and evaluating projects on their return to the state. Plus, funding formulas change. One component has York County as a donor county receiving, at least on that metric, more than any other county statewide.
“It’s important to separate the then from the now,” Simrill said.
Feda agreed a benefit of the shift toward federal goals, and selecting projects to meet them with evaluation once they’re complete, is to get away from decisions that put new pavement in certain places that may not best serve the state road system.
“We’ve taken politics out of it,” he said. “We’ve taken favoritism out of it.”
Still, local roads need work. Work local leaders want to see completed, with the state doing its part.
“We’re triaging with our Pennies program,” Savage said. “I’m less concerned about yesterday than I am tomorrow.”