For close to two years, South Carolina motorists have paid more at the pump under a gas-tax hike lawmakers said would lead to the largest investment in state history to fix the state’s pothole-riddled roads.
The tax increase — 4 cents on the dollar so far since July 1 of 2017 — has generated $149 million in extra cash for the state’s road improvements. But so far, only $19 million has gone toward completing projects around the state, including $2.6 million in Richland County, as of Jan. 31.
The delay in spending and completing projects stems in part from it taking time for contractors to schedule the work, S.C. Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall told The State. Hurricane Florence, other storms and “unusually wet weather” also have slowed progress, she said.
Hall said the state plans to ramp up its resurfacing program about $60 million each year, and drivers will notice. “As we get into the spring and summer months, we will see those numbers increase pretty significantly.”
Even with the delays, however, the new gas tax has led to a record level of road work underway across the state, according to newly released records from the S.C. Department of Transportation.
For the first time in the agency’s history, the total amount of road work underway on the state’s highways exceeded $3 billion in a year, three times the state’s typical annual spending on roads.
Money from the gas tax increase, specifically, is slated to pay for $812 million in projects currently under construction and another $169 million in development, according to the DOT. Those projects, combined with the $19 million already completed, total $1 billion in investments.
A bulk of the road money, nearly $650 million, will pay for paving 2,240 miles of state roads. About $246 million is earmarked to assist with interstate widening projects. Another $95 million is set aside for rural road safety improvements, such as widening shoulders and adding guardrails, and $10 million will replace 15 structurally deficient bridges.
“There’s been a dramatic investment in road and bridge projects all across the state, and every county in the state benefited from the increased gas tax revenue,” Hall said.
$19 million spent, millions more underway
In 2017, state lawmakers approved a gas tax increase of 2 cents per year for six years. In 2022, once the tax is fully phased in, motorists will pay a tax of almost 29 cents on the gallon, which is estimated to raise $600 million a year more for roads than before the law changed. The law also increased the cap on the motor vehicle sales tax — to $500 from $300 — and added or increased other user fees to provide an estimated $630 million a year more for roads.
So far, the state has collected $541 million in new road money from increases in the gas tax and user fees. Of that, about $116 million has been disbursed, including about $13 million in tax credits to motorists and about $35 million to county road committees for local roads. This year was the first year S.C. residents could submit receipts for gas purchases and vehicle maintenance to claim a tax credit on their state income taxes.
In Richland and Lexington counties alone, $78.9 million in projects are under construction, $14.5 million are in development and $2.6 million in pavement improvements are completed along stretches of Blossom St., and Two Notch, Percival and Kennerly roads.
The $19 million in projects completed statewide also include:
- $4.8 million in Aiken County, including paving five miles of state roads, and adding paved shoulders, rumble strips, and new pavement markings along more than nine miles of U.S. 1 North to improve safety on the rural road
$2 million to pave seven miles of state roads and road safety improvements along Broad Street in Sumter County
$1.5 million to pave about seven miles of state roads in Anderson County
$1.2 million to pave six miles of state roads in Dillon County
- $569,000 to replace a bridge along St. Matthews Church Rd. crossing Toms Creek in Eastover
Projects under construction slated to be paid for by the tax increase include $34 million for planned upgrades to I-20 in Lexington County, and $212 million for upgrades to I-85 in Cherokee and Spartanburg counties.
Hall and S.C. Sen. Larry Grooms, a Berkeley Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, both dismissed concerns, raised during the debate over the gas tax, that road resurfacing money would be diverted to large construction projects in select counties with political influence.
“We tend to group projects by geographic region,” Hall said. “One month may look like a region has an awful lot of projects on the list, but several months later may see that’s changed as we bring more and more projects to market. It’s a constantly evolving and growing list.”
The state officials also stressed that repairing South Carolina’s highway system after three decades of neglect will take time and not happen overnight.
“With the resurfacing and rehabilitative work the DOT is doing, that could take 10 to 15 years to get a majority of roads in the state up to a service level of good (pavement),” Grooms said, echoing comments Hall recently made at a committee hearing.
“Part of our challenge is to get the industry ramped up and execute the 10-year plan ... to improve the system,” Hall told The State.
“But, every year that goes by, you should see more and more roadwork happening across the state. And it’s evident today.”