Politics & Government

Despite gas tax, SC roads won’t be fixed overnight

South Carolina’s gas-tax hike will take effect July 1, but it will take time — years, in some cases — before drivers will see orange cones go up at road-repair projects.

In part, that is because the first priority will be on safety projects — including upgrading guard rails and improving signs — to reduce highway deaths on the state’s rural roads.

It also will take time to see repairs get started because road projects require planning.

“It’s much like building a home,” said S.C. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York. “The minute you close on the construction loan, the house does not pop up overnight.”

For example, the S.C. road projects “being built today are projects that we initiated more than four years ago,” said S.C. Transportation Department Secretary Christy Hall.

First priority? Safety

The state’s first roads priority will not be widening roads or major construction projects. Instead, the Transportation Department has committed to spending $50 million a year to improve the state’s deadliest rural roads.

Those roads are not just rural back roads. They also include interstates and primary roads in rural areas, some of the most-trafficked highways in the state.

Fixes will include repairs less obvious than repaving miles of roadway. For example, safety projects will include upgrading or installing guard rails and cable barriers, clearing ditches, improving signage, installing rumble strips to alert drivers they are nearing a highway’s edge and widening shoulders to give drivers more time to correct if they wander off the road.

“Leading the nation in deadliest rural roads is certainly something that we don’t want to be known for,” Hall said. She added each of the rural safety projects will be a solution tailored for that particular section of roadway.

Design, building takes time

Roughly two years of work has to take place before orange road-repair cones go up.

Preparing for road projects is time-consuming, requiring environmental permitting, public input, coordinating with utilities and acquiring rights of way, said Eric Dickey, a vice president in the Columbia-based Davis and Floyd engineering firm.

Those steps take time, Dickey added.

“There are a lot of hoops to jump through,” said Leslie Clark, director of government relations for Carolinas Associated General Contractors. “Unfortunately, the coordination that has to take place doesn’t happen overnight.”

Workforce must ramp up

South Carolina’s road-building workforce also must ramp up before repairs can get underway.

For the past 30 years, South Carolina has underfunded its roads. Faced with that reality, road-building engineers and firms looked for business elsewhere — in Georgia and North Carolina, for instance.

“A company is not going to invest (in South Carolina) as long as they know that there’s not money coming,” said Clark of the contractor’s group.

However, contractors began preparing to rev up their S.C. operations about a year ago, as the legislative debate over increasing the state’s gas tax heated up.

As a result, Clark said, “We feel very good that we’re a little ahead of the curve as far as those (hiring) issues go.”

First hike is only 2 cents

Also, not all the money from the state’s higher gas tax will become available July 1. Instead, the gas tax — now 16.75 cents a gallon — will increase by only 2 cents, the first of six annual 2-cent increases.

The phase-in was designed to ensure enough contractors would be ready to compete for the new highway dollars, legislators say.

Putting too much money into the road-repair system, without having the contractor force ready to go, would drive up construction prices, said Simrill.

By phasing in the money, South Carolina will get the most roads repaired for its money, Simrill said. “It’s a pure case of supply and demand.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

4 reasons road repairs will take time

1. The first priority is on making rural roads safer — not major construction and widening projects.

2. Road design and building is a time-consuming process.

3. S.C. road contractors must ramp up their labor force to do the added work.

4. The gas-tax hike phases in over six years; the first 2 cents, which takes effect July 1, will pay for only so much work.