South Carolina's push to safeguard nearly 2,000 miles of rural roads — among the state's deadliest — finally is underway.
Nearly a year after the state's higher gas tax took effect, the S.C. Department of Transportation has awarded more than $16 million in contracts to make two rural highways in Lexington County safer.
While construction has not started yet, the road projects — nearly 21 miles of S.C. 302 from Aiken to Lexington, and almost 34 miles of U.S. 178 from Lexington to Orangeburg — are expected to be finished by fall 2019, state Transportation Department officials said Friday.
South Carolina's rural roads are some of the deadliest in the nation. The reasons include a lack of safety features, the time it takes for emergency vehicles to respond to rural accidents and the high speeds at which many motorists drive on rural roads, compared to urban areas, according to a 2017 report by TRIP, a national transportation research group.
"South Carolina's fatality rate is the highest in the nation," state Transportation Department Director Christy Hall said in a statement Tuesday. "Thirty percent of our fatalities and serious injuries are happening on just 5 percent of our (road) network."
Rural road face-lift in Lexington
The work on the two Lexington highways is the first rural roads project since the Transportation Department enacted its first 10-year roads program. It includes widening road shoulders and adding rumble strips to warn drivers when they near a road's edge. It's being bankrolled by last year's hike in the state's gas tax by two cents a year for six years, a total of 12 cents.
The program aims to address problems on 1,957 miles of rural roads. From 2011 to 2015, 633 people died on those roads and another 1,187 were seriously injured.
State transportation officials say the higher gas tax will quicken the state's ability to put safety features on rural roads.
That higher tax — plus other increased driving fees that took effect July 1, 2017 — is expected to raise about $600 million a year to pay for road repairs, once fully phased in. Since the hike took effect, more than $141 million has flowed into state coffers to pay for road repairs.
The state Transportation Department said Tuesday it has awarded a roughly $11.3 million contract to Lane Construction Corp. to improve U.S. 178, from near Batesburg-Leesville to Pelion. Roughly 4,300 cars travel that stretch of road daily.
The second road project — S.C. 302 starting at the Aiken County line and continuing a mile beyond the town of Edmund — was awarded to ATC Site Construction for about $5.4 million. About 8,700 cars travel that stretch of S.C. 302 daily, the Transportation Department said.
Changes to both highways will include making the road shoulders 4 feet wider, adding rumble strips to the road's center line and edges, upgrading road signs and resurfacing the pavement.
"The (rural roads) program has been designed to target the worst of the worst roads in our state," Hall said. "These two projects and those like them will enable us to begin to reclaim the safety features on the major roads that connect our communities together."
SC's rural roads among the worst
South Carolina's rural roads are some of the deadliest in the nation, in part because they lack safety features. But S.C. officials are starting work to fix those roads with the help of new state revenue — generated by the state's higher gas tax and other fees that took effect a year ago. The goal is to cut the number of vehicle crashes on the corridors.
- 4,260: Fatalities on all S.C. roads from 2011 to 2015
- 2,477: Fatalities on the state's rural roads during that same period
- 14,614: Serious injuries on S.C. roads from 2011 to 2015
- 6,466: Serious injuries on the state's rural roads during that same period
- 44: Deaths and serious injuries from 2011 to 2015 on sections of S.C. 302 and U.S. 178 that are being repaired