As S.C. lawmakers are working to come up with a solution to repair South Carolina’s crumbling roads, a record number of Palmetto State residents will be driving during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
Interstates and primary roads carry 75 percent of South Carolina’s traffic, according to the S.C. Department of Transportation. Many of those roads contain cracks and potholes that are deteriorating steadily — threatening to put travelers on the side of the road changing a tire instead of eating Christmas ham and exchanging gifts at Grandma’s.
South Carolina’s interstate system is more than 50 years old, and 39 percent of the roads are in poor or fair condition. The primary roads — made up of U.S. and S.C. routes — are in worse shape, with 84 percent of those roads in poor or fair condition.
Nearly 1.4 million South Carolinians will use the state’s roads to take holiday trips of at least 50 miles during the next 13 days, according to AAA Carolinas. The spike in travel is due in part to the lowest gas prices since 2009, according to the organization. Gas prices averaged $2.22 per gallon in South Carolina Monday — 84 cents cheaper than a year prior.
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Meanwhile, S.C. House members have been working since September to find solutions to reform the Transportation Department and fix the state’s roads — estimated to cost $43 billion that the state does not have through 2040.
The panel will meet Jan. 12, just before the next legislative session starts, to work on proposals to suggest to the full House.
The representatives on that panel are familiar with just how troublesome traveling on South Carolina’s roads can be.
“Quite often I am on I-95, and I am embarrassed by the fact my car has a state legislator tag on it,” said Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort, who is on the committee.
The I-95 interstate narrows from six lanes in Georgia to four in South Carolina, which can cause congestion during heavy traffic.
Newton said he frequently travels up the interstate to see family members in other parts of the state and planned to drive to see family members during the holidays.
“Clearly, the congestion on our roads (and) the potential for backup is something we take into account when we’re planning a trip,” Newton said.
Often, he has difficulty getting back to his Bluffton home, whether driving from Columbia during the legislative session or after a visit with his in-laws in Clarendon County, he said.
Newton also said he knew someone who had lost two tires in two months driving on I-95 in South Carolina because of poor road conditions.
Car repairs like that are a hidden tax on S.C. residents, he said.
Raising the state’s 16.75 cents-a-gallon gas tax has been a sticking point in the roads debate. The tax-adverse Legislature has not increased the gas tax since 1987, and South Carolina has among the lowest gas taxes in the nation.
Opponents to the tax increase say that revenues from the gas tax are not dependable since vehicles are becoming more fuel-efficient.
Gov. Nikki Haley has said she would veto an increase to the gas tax. Haley has not yet announced a formal roads plan, saying it will come next month.
Newton said it would be politically expedient for him to say he is in no way interested in increasing the gas tax. But he said that as an elected official, he is not willing to allow the conditions of the roads to persist.
“It’s time for us to get something done,” Newton said. “If that means an increase in the motor fuel fee or gas tax ... absolutely.”
Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, chairs the House roads panel and has traveled around South Carolina the past few months as part of that role visiting Myrtle Beach, Greenville and Charleston.
Simrill also traveled recently to Charleston to pick up his daughter from college and bring her home to Rock Hill.
When Simrill has driven on I-26 on those trips, he has had to exit off the interstate because of accidents and road construction, he said. He used his phone’s GPS to take another route, he said.
Simrill has offered a proposal to give counties responsibility to repair and maintain nearly half of the roads currently maintained by the state.
County representatives oppose that idea, wary of trusting the Legislature, which has failed in recent years to fully fund money it has promised to local governments.