Politics & Government

How spending too little on SC roads costs hundreds of lives

South Carolina Deadly Roads - A family's story

Amy and David Lee lost their 19-year-old daughter Grayson Ann Lee, when she ran off the road and hit a tree in the median near mile marker 183 on I-26 in 2014. The Lees say the area should have been lined with cable barriers which could have saved their daughter's life.
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Amy and David Lee lost their 19-year-old daughter Grayson Ann Lee, when she ran off the road and hit a tree in the median near mile marker 183 on I-26 in 2014. The Lees say the area should have been lined with cable barriers which could have saved their daughter's life.

Grayson Lee, 19, was driving to Columbia from Charleston when her car ran off Interstate 26, slamming into a tree.

Lee was thrown from her Ford Mustang, dying nearly two years ago on Sept. 2, 2014, her mother Amy Lee recalled.

“It was instant,” Lee said of her daughter’s death.

Grayson Lee is one of 4,534 people who died on S.C. roads since 2011.

Hundreds of those deaths could have been prevented if the state spent more to make its roads safer. But the S.C. Department of Transportation says it doesn’t have the money it would need to save those lives.

4,534 deaths — Number of S.C. highway fatalities since 2011

The Palmetto State had the nation’s deadliest roads in 2014, based on miles traveled. In part, that was attributable to years of spending little to maintain S.C. roads and bridges – clearing ditches, patching potholes and replacing damaged signs.

The Transportation Department estimates it needs an extra $943 million a year to make the state’s deteriorating roads safer.

The sticking point is where that money would come from.

A key part of the solution, advocates say, is raising the state’s gas tax – the third lowest in the nation – to provide more money for roads. That tax has not been raised in 30 years.

However, for two years, South Carolina’s GOP-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Nikki Haley have turned efforts to get the roads agency more money for repairs into a political football.

But, when S.C. lawmakers return to Columbia in January, they yet again promise to look at a long-term funding solution to fixing the Palmetto State’s crumbling roads.

Death by the side of the road

Now, when a S.C. driver runs off the road, there too often is little space to slow down or stop.

The driver slams into a tree.

Or plows into an embankment.

Or flips into a ditch.

Of the 4,534 fatalities on S.C. highways since Jan. 1, 2011, at least 2,133 occurred when a vehicle ran off the road, according to preliminary information from the Department of Public Safety. One in every five of those fatalities – at least 981 – involved a driver running off the road and hitting a tree.

S.C. officials say they know how to cut down on those deaths: clear areas alongside highways. So-call “clear zones” would give drivers room to recover if they ran off the road, a key to preventing deaths, roads officials say. That solution is identified in the state’s 2015 Strategic Highway Safety Plan, which aims to eliminate highway fatalities.

“There’s little margin for error for a driver who gets distracted or drifts off the side of the road because of obstacles being in the clear zone,” said state Transportation Department chief Christy Hall.

Instead, if a motorist runs out of their lane or off the road, the car “will skid out of control and roll or hit something else,” said state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. “The something else, too many times, is a tree.”

In Grayson Lee’s case, it was a tree.

$943 million — The dollars the Transportation Department estimates it needs to improve the state’s deteriorating roads and make them safer

Lee was not speeding, according to a post-crash incident report. But she was not wearing her seat belt, which was unusual, her mother said.

“We don’t 100 percent know what happened,” Amy Jackson Lee said.

$1 billion to make SC roads safer

The state Transportation Department says it needs almost $1 billion a year more for routine maintenance, resurfacing and other safety improvements, including money for guard rails and cable barriers.

But Hall knows her agency won’t get nearly that amount in added money from legislators.

So, the road-repair agency plans to break down the state’s highway safety needs, saying exactly what it will do if it gets any new dollars.

“I don’t think anybody disagrees that there’s a lot of deferred maintenance on our roads and bridges in this state, but that problem wasn’t created overnight nor is it going to be solved overnight,” Hall said.

16.75 cent-a-gallon — South Carolina’s gas tax, among the lowest in the nation, has not been increased for 30 years

Transportation Department safety programs now include adding rumble strips to warn drivers they are at a road’s edge and 2-foot-wide paved shoulders to give errant drivers a chance to recover. But those features are added only if the state has the right-of-way on a paving project or if the area is targeted specifically for safety improvements.

The Transportation Department would like to add more rumble strips on shoulders, guard rails and cable barriers along more S.C. highways.

In part, it wants to do so to address the state’s unsafe rural roads. South Carolina ranked second in the nation in highway fatalities on rural roads in 2015, according to a report by The Road Information Program.

Making S.C. roads safer will require more money, says Senate leader Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, adding, “One death is too many.”

S.C. lawmakers have refused to increase the state’s gas tax for nearly 30 years.

In January, Leatherman says, he will push for the Legislature to approve an increase in recurring money to the Department of Transportation. The road-repair agency cannot approve contracts for road and bridge projects unless it knows it will have money every year to pay for those projects, he added.

The quest for more recurring money for roads generally translates into increasing the state’s 16.75 cent-a-gallon gas tax. But, last spring, legislators refused to increase that tax, as they have for the past 29 years.

Instead, they approved spending $4 billion over 10 years to pay for some road improvements. That’s roughly 10 percent of what the Transportation Department has said it needs over the next two decades to ensure South Carolina has excellent roads and bridges, and an expanded road network.

Most lawmakers agree $4 billion isn’t nearly enough.

“We kid ourselves if we think it’s ‘mission accomplished’ when we are using general fund revenue and or bonding as our solution to roads,” said state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York.

Simrill, assistant majority leader of House Republicans, sponsored a proposal to increase the gas tax in 2014 that passed the House. “It (a higher gas tax) is a user fee-based system.”

While that gas-tax hike died in the Senate, Simrill says the subject will come up again. House Republicans have contacted him, saying they want to discuss increasing the gas-tax at a House GOP Caucus retreat in October, he added.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, is open to the idea of a gas-tax hike as well.

“Next session, all options will be on the table and every concept will be explored to find the best possible solution to adequately fix our roads,” Lucas said, adding the state’s “crumbling infrastructure ... endangers millions of motorists.”

We kid ourselves if we think its mission accomplished when we are using general fund revenue and/or bonding as our solution to roads.

S.C. Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York

Even Gov. Nikki Haley, who many Republican and Democratic legislators blame for blocking road-repair bills, says the $4 billion approved last spring isn’t enough.

The borrowing proposal is “not of the magnitude or sustainability” to address the long-term needs of the state’s highway system, Haley noted, signing the borrowing proposal.

Haley: Give me control of agency before any added money

Many legislators point to Haley as the reason a roads fix has not been passed.

Haley vowed to oppose a gas-tax hike when she was running for re-election in 2014. In 2015, however, she changed her mind, unveiling a plan to increase the gas tax in exchange for a far larger income tax cut, which critics said would de-fund other parts of state government to the tune of $2 billion when fully phased-in.

State Sen. Joel Lourie, the Richland Democrat who is retiring at the end of this year, says Haley needs to help find a roads solution.

“It’s very hard for my Republican colleagues to vote for a tax increase when she has the benefit of the bully podium and is using that against them.”

However, Haley says she will continue to push for changes to the structure of the Transportation Department before giving the agency any new money.

Haley wants the agency to report directly to her. Now, legislators can reject her nominees to the commission that oversees the agency.

Changing the agency’s structure is necessary to ensure road projects are not driven by politics, she said. As an example, she cited the Transportation Department Commission recently approving a $21 million list of road “beautification” projects proposed by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia.

“Here you have money, and instead of putting it to saving lives, you did it to plant flowers,” Haley said. “It is unacceptable.”

Haley said if lawmakers will give her control of the agency, she will be happy to discuss more money for road repairs.

Some doubt that lawmakers – with less new money to spend next year and pressing needs in rural schools and, now, state pensions – will get anything done on roads in 2017.

“As a retiring legislator, and soon-to-be private citizen, I still have grave concerns about the state’s willingness to invest in its infrastructure,” said Sen. Lourie, who worked with Republicans and Democrats in a failed effort to pass a gas-tax increase earlier this year. “We don’t need to wait for more tragedies.”

Trees vs. humans

Almost two years have passed since Grayson Lee died alongside Interstate 26.

The stretch of interstate where she died was known to be dangerous. Trees line the road and are in its median in the heavily forested area.

From 2007 to 2011, Interstate 26 – between Interstate 95 and Summerville – had more serious wrecks involving trees than any other S.C. interstate. Twenty-four percent of interstate crashes involving fatalities or serious injuries occurred on that stretch of I-26, according to the Transportation Department.

In part, that is because the average distance from I-26’s roadway to the tree line in the median was 25 feet, 21 feet closer than the recommended 46 feet.

Legislators had a chance to address that issue in 2013.

Instead, the GOP-controlled Legislature made it more difficult for the Transportation Department to make the road safer, requiring it to get the approval of local governments before removing trees on that stretch in I-26.

“I was opposed to clear-cutting all of the trees” said Grooms, who pushed for local approval, adding, “The trees add a lot of beauty to our roadways.”

Grooms advocated for putting up cable barriers and keeping the trees.

After studying the issue, the Transportation Department said more expensive guard rails – not cable barriers – would be needed to keep motorists out of the nearby trees. However, the agency said guard rails were too expensive.

Time lapse of trees being cleared off of I-26

As the trees vs. safety debate heated up, 19-year-old Grayson Lee was killed.

Grayson’s death was her fault, not the fault of the trees, according to some who commented on news articles about her crash. Others said the teen’s death was not a reason to cut down trees, her mother recalled.

“It’s a tree versus a human life,” she said. “It’s somebody’s daughter, somebody’s brother, somebody’s sister, somebody’s mom, somebody’s dad.”

Ultimately, trees were removed on only about half of the 23-mile stretch proposed. About 12 miles also now have cable barriers in the median.

Since their installation was completed in September 2015, 26 cars have crashed into the cable barriers in that section of I-26, according to the Transportation Department. Only one crash resulted in a fatality.

The tree that Grayson hit is still standing, her mother said.

SC roads and safety

Spending too little on roads ...

S.C. barely spent more for roads last fiscal year than it did in 2005.

2005-06: $1.5 billion

2006-07: $1.4 billion

2007-08: $1 billion

2008-09: $1.1 billion

2009-10: $1.3 billion

2010-1: $1.3 billion

2011-12: $1.5 billion

2012-13: $1.4 billion

2013-14: $1.6 billion

2014-15: $1.7 billion

2015-16: $1.6 billion

Has led to too little money for repairs, safety ...

State money paid for routine maintenance, repaving roads and traffic signals and operations over the past decade (in unadjusted dolllars):

2007-08: $332.5 million

2008-09: $366.1 million

2009-10: $392.7 million

2010-11: $333.4 million

2011-12: $330 million

2012-13: $269.9 million

2013-14: $281 million

2014-15: $294.1 million

2015-16: $344.8 million

2016-17: $354.8 million

Leaving an almost $1 billion a year need ...

The Transportation Department estimates it needs an extra $943 million a year to improve the state’s crumbling roads, including making them safer. Where the money would go:

Re-paving: $500 million

Routine maintenance: $233 million

Signs and road markings: $100.3 million

Guard rail and cable barriers: $48 million

Bridges: $46 million

Traffic signals: $15.8 million

Meanwhile, crumbling roads cost S.C. residents billions ...

The added annual cost per motorist of driving on S.C. roads because of lost time and wasted fuel due to traffic congestion and crashes in the state’s three largest urban areas is:

Columbia: $1,250

Greenville: $1,248

Charleston: $1,168

Or their lives

S.C.’s deadly roads: The toll

4,534: Deaths on S.C. roads since 2011

2,133: Fatalities involving a car running off the road

981: Fatalities involving a car hitting a tree

SOURCES: S.C. Department of Transportation, S.C. Department of Public Safety, The Road Information Program