From 2009 to 2012, Dorchester County officials repeatedly applied for millions of dollars in federal transportation grants to pay for road improvements along a hurricane evacuation route and improve access to Interstate 95 and the Port of Georgetown.
County officials made the case that the project would improve road safety and play a crucial role in facilitating economic growth in a rural area, but were denied while tens of millions of dollars flowed to help pay for downtown revitalization and redevelopment in South Carolina’s largest cities.
That money included more than $16 million to help revitalize North Main Street in Columbia in support of the city’s pedestrian improvement and beautification initiative.
Fast forward to 2017, and circumstances have changed under President Donald Trump, with rural areas grabbing a bigger chunk of transportation grant dollars.
In 2017, Dorchester County officials received every federal grant dollar they requested for the project — more than $13 million — to resurface, widen and improve intersections along a roughly eight mile section of U.S. 78 between Summerville and St. George.
That money combined with other federal grants, which improve the infrastructure rural communities need “in order to prosper,” helped the county secure over $180 million in private investment, Dorchester County Administrator Jason Ward told The State.
Of the $76 million awarded to S.C. projects during Democrat Barack Obama’s eight years in office, about $35 million was earmarked for rural projects. In not yet three years under Republican Trump, all $38 million awarded went to S.C. rural projects in areas with a census population of less than 50,000 people.
Twenty-five of the 30 states Trump won in 2016, including South Carolina, have received bigger shares of funding from the federal program that has shifted to favoring rural roads over urban, according to a McClatchy analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation data.
South Carolina’s share of the more than $7 billion in discretionary federal transportation grants awarded for road, rail, transit and port projects across the country also increased from 1.5% under Obama’s presidency to 2% under Trump.
Nationally, about 80% of discretionary federal transportation dollars was awarded to urban areas under Obama, with about 20% earmarked for rural projects. That’s now flipped under President Trump, whose political strength rests with working-class, white voters in small towns and rural communities in the South, Midwest and Rocky Mountain states.
During the two Trump years funded so far, 66% of the dollars used nationally to support state and local projects to improve transportation safety, ease congestion, expand commerce and protect the environment have gone to rural initiatives.
South Carolina Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said the Trump administration has been more engaged with state officials than previous administrations, resulting in streamlined environmental permitting of major infrastructure projects and additional funding for disaster recovery operations.
“Since (South Carolina) is still mostly a rural state, we do appreciate the administration recognizing the need to invest in rural infrastructure, and we would be hopeful that the state would receive more grant awards than perhaps we have in the past,” Hall told The State.
Trump administration officials insist the shift towards rural projects was done to “re-balance the under-investment in rural communities — to address overlooked needs” as a result of an Obama-era preference for urban grants.
Where public transit, bicycle and pedestrian improvements benefited under Obama, Trump officials have directed a greater share to roads. As a result, critics argue the Trump program ignores more innovative, environmentally friendly forms of transportation.
In South Carolina, since 2017, funding from the Trump administration has helped pay for expansion of the Inland Port in Greer to advance the region’s manufacturing industry by increasing shipping capacity, and the highway improvements in Dorchester County.
Opened in 2013, the 50-acre port in Spartanburg County links Upstate manufacturers, including BMW, to the Port of Charleston by the Norfolk Southern main rail line, which will be extended under the project.
The entire South Carolina delegation lobbied U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao for the funding, sending a letter in August urging support for the estimated $51 million project. The S.C. DOT received a $25 million federal grant for the project in December, the single largest such grant awarded for the state across either administration.
“South Carolina’s manufacturing industry is one of the strongest and fastest growing in the country, and will need greater capacity,” said Brian Symmes, spokesman for Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, who was the first statewide elected official in the nation to endorse Trump in his 2016 run. “Any investment to increase that capacity is more than welcome. It is greatly appreciated, and recognition that South Carolina’s economy is growing and ... that there is a need to continue to invest in infrastructure that helps that economic growth reach its full potential.”
McMaster spoke Thursday with Secretary Chao to discuss potential grant funding for I-73, according to the governor’s office. The interstate would traverse three of the poorest counties in South Carolina — Marion, Marlboro and Dillon — stretching from the North Carolina border to Myrtle Beach, providing a direct link to one of the state’s busiest tourist destinations.
Beginning this year, however, grant dollars will be split evenly between rural and urban projects under a measure approve by both parties in Congress.
Though it will adhere to the 50-50 split, the U.S. DOT said in announcing the 2019 program that its selection criteria “gives special consideration to projects that emphasize improved access to reliable, safe and affordable transportation in rural areas.”
“You can visually see the difference already,” Columbia Assistant City Manger Missy Gentry said of the upgrades being made to North Main Street utilizing the federal grant dollars and penny sales tax.
She stressed every application the city has made for transportation funding has been supported by members of the S.C. congressional delegation from both parties. She added city officials remain hopeful to receive additional funding to continue street upgrades and pedestrian improvements along Main and Assembly streets.
“It enhances the whole corridor and adds to the city’s economic vitality and enhances the livelihood of not only residents, but our businesses,” Gentry said.