S.C. Highway Patrol Lance Cpl. David Jones worked hundreds of collisions during his seven years patrolling traffic in Malfunction Junction.
The huge number of cars traveling through the area daily — up to 133,600 — at a high rate of speed caused many wrecks in the twisting and turning cluster of interchanges, he said.
Recognizing the danger, state officials have set easing congestion in the area as a top priority.
But how to pay for those fixes is a mystery.
Untangling the 14 miles of interstate, 12 interchanges and 19 bridges of Malfunction Junction could cost up to $1.5 billion, according to preliminary estimates by the Transportation Department. The state has set aside $92.6 million for the project.
The missing money to fix Malfunction Junction, which the S.C. Department of Transportation re-branded this year as Carolina Crossroads, is just a part of the added $1.5 billion a year the Transportation Department says it needs to repair the state’s crumbling and congested highways.
“It’s sort of the poster child for the failure to take action over many, many, many years and the unwillingness to garner the political will to dedicate resources that are needed to fix (roads),” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, whose district includes part of Malfunction Junction.
‘People are tired’ of bad roads
Starting in January, the pressure will be on S.C. lawmakers to decide whether and how to pay to fix the state’s crumbling roads.
After last month’s flooding, there is near-universal agreement that something must be done. But what that “something” is will be the subject of intense debate.
Legislative conservatives say fixing the state’s roads must start with reforming the S.C. Transportation Department, ensuring politics and waste are removed from road building. Then, they say, the state should spend its growing annual surpluses on roads. This year, for example, lawmakers sent $216.4 million in surplus money to counties to pay for road repairs.
However, most legislators say those prescriptions are not enough.
Reform has been tried before, as recently as 2007. And the amount of added money needed to repair the state’s roads far exceeds $200 million a year. There also are other priorities for any added state dollars, including a Supreme Court ruling that the state should spend more on rural schools.
The Transportation Department says it needs an additional $1.5 billion a year to repair, maintain and expand the state’s highways. Just repairing, preserving and modernizing the existing roads system will cost an added $1 billion a year, the agency says. But some critics argue far less is needed — about $350 million a year, according to a plan by Gov. Nikki Haley — if expansion is taken off the table.
When legislators return to Columbia, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, says he will fight as hard as he can to increase the state’s gas tax, using that added money for road repairs. “People are tired of their roads being in the condition that they’re in.”
The Republican-controlled S.C. House passed a plan to do just that last April, voting to raise up to $600 million a year, largely by increasing by 10 cents the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax — third-lowest in the nation.
Members of the Leatherman-led Senate Finance Committee amended the House proposal to increase taxes even more — raising roughly $800 million a year. But that proposal died when state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, filibustered the bill, saying future state surpluses could pay for road repairs if the Transportation Department was restructured, changing how it spends road money.
‘Throwing money at it is not going to fix it’
Davis is not the only legislative conservative who says that increasing taxes alone is not the solution.
“Throwing money at it is not going to fix it until we reform the Department of Transportation,” ensuring all existing road dollars are being spent as wisely as possible, said state Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, whose district — like Smith’s — includes parts of Malfunction Junction.
Quinn wants the commission that oversees the Transportation Department abolished before any new money goes to road repairs.
Quinn said that move, which would make the roads agency part of the governor’s cabinet, would add accountability to how money is spent on roads. Voters would know the governor is responsible for roads, not a seven-member board, six of whose members are elected by legislators.
“We don’t have accountability right now,” he said. “When everybody’s in charge, nobody’s in charge.”
But last month’s flooding could be softening Davis’ opposition to a tax hike.
The flooding demonstrated the state’s road-repair needs, making finding a solution urgent, Davis said.
If lawmakers can ensure tax dollars are going where they are needed — for repairs and maintaining roads and bridges, rather than new construction — and additional money still is needed, Davis now says he could consider adding more revenues.
“I’m not adverse to raising the gas tax,” Davis said.
‘A fact of life’
The 48-year-old Smith, who grew up in the Columbia area, says Malfunction Junction — the series of interchanges surrounding the intersection of Interstate 20 and Interstate 26 — has been an issue all of his life.
Growing up, Smith’s parents even called the area “Malfunction Junction.”
“It’s almost just become a fact of life for most people,” he said. “You have to plan for it.”
The roads of Malfunction Junction were built during the 1960s. Improvements were made during the 1970s and 1980s as the area grew.
Today, however, thousands more commuters — from Chapin, Irmo, Harbison, Dutch Fork, St. Andrews and the north shore of Lake Murray — use Malfunction Junction daily to travel to downtown Columbia.
Traffic engineers know the roads are overburdened.
Widening a five-mile stretch of I-26 in Richland and Lexington counties, from St. Andrews Road to Broad River Road, is the Transportation Department’s top priority to ease traffic congestion in South Carolina. Two Malfunction Junction interchanges are on the Transportation Department’s list of the Top 5 interchanges statewide most in need of improvements.
While the Transportation Department has yet to put an official price-tag on fixing Malfunction Junction, planning work has started.
The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank, for example, has agreed to spend $10 million for preliminary studies and costs. “We’re not to the starting line yet, but at least we’ve got the sneakers on,” said former Commerce Secretary Joe Taylor, who sits on the board that governs the Infrastructure Bank.
‘No reasonable alternative’
For Midlands residents, congestion in the Malfunction Junction area is not just a week-day, rush-hour issue.
Traffic also builds up on weekends as motorists head to the area to shop, said Andrew Peach, general manager of Columbiana Centre mall, near Harbison Boulevard.
Peach said his employees learn back roads and different ways to get to the mall to avoid the traffic.
Truck drivers also aim to avoid the corridor, said Rick Todd, president of the S.C. Trucking Association.
The area’s “ super-tight” clover leaves are “recipes for accidents,” Todd added.
But medium-and heavy-duty tractor trailers have little option, Todd said. Typically, larger trucks remain on interstates regardless because those highways are supposedly the safest and built the best, he said.
“For Malfunction Junction, there is no reasonable alternative,” Todd said.
Where the money goes
Where the state Transportation Department proposes to spend $1.75 billion next fiscal year, starting July 1
Maintaining roads, addressing congestion
$845 million: To maintain and preserve roads and bridges
$591 million: To address congested highways, including widening roads
$120 million: Engineering and project management
$81 million: Debt payments
$58 million: Payroll and fringe benefits for 5,000+ agency workers
$33 million: Planning and mass-transit division
$15 million: Enhancements, including required federal projects, “welcome to” signs and sidewalks
$9 million: Tolls and other expenses
Where the money comes from
Where the $1.7 billion the S.C. Transportation Department expects to get for 2016-17 will come from
$857 million: Federal dollars
$463 million: S.C.’s 16.75 cent-a-gallon gas tax
$118 million: Fees, fines, tolls, permits, participation agreements
$110 million: A portion of gas tax revenue, car sales tax, motor vehicle license fees
$88 million: Money from the State Ports Authority to reimburse the cost of a roads expansion for the port
$62 million: Money from the state budget, including money for the Transportation Infrastructure Bank
5 worst S.C. interstates for congestion
The Top 5 widening projects to address congestion needs in South Carolina
1. Lexington/Richland County
Interstate 26 from St Andrews Road to Broad River Road, a roughly five-mile stretch
Average daily traffic ranges from 71,000 to 115,000 vehicles, according to the Transportation Department. Truck traffic is about 15 percent.
2. Greenville/Spartanburg County
Interstate 85 from U.S. 25 to S.C. 129, roughly 25 miles
Average daily traffic ranges from 82,000 to 124,000 vehicles. Truck traffic is about 28 percent.
3. Charleston/Berkeley County
Interstate 526 from S.C. 7 to U.S. 17, roughly 19 miles
Average daily traffic ranges from just under 60,000 to just more than 86,000 vehicles. Truck traffic ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent.
4. Lexington/Calhoun County
Interstate 26 from U.S. 321 to S-31, roughly 9.5 miles
Average daily traffic is about 61,000 vehicles. Truck traffic is about 20 percent.
5. Lexington County
Interstate 20 from Longs Pond Road to U.S. 378, roughly 10 miles
Average daily traffic is about 60,000 vehicles. Truck traffic is approximately 12 percent.
Five worst S.C. bridges
1. Berkeley/Charleston counties
S.C. 41, over the Wando River
2. Georgetown/Horry counties
U.S. 701, over the Great Pee Dee River
3. Charleston County
S.C. 174, over Store Creek/Sand Creek/Russell Creek
4. Richland County
Garners Ferry Road (U.S. 76), east-and-west-bound over Mill Creek
5. Chester/Union County
S.C. 9, over Broad River/Broad River Canal
How much is needed?
$1.5 billion a year
To maintain, preserve and expand the state’s road, bridge and mass-transit system.
$1 billion a year
To maintain, preserve and modernize only — not expand — the existing road-and-bridge system.
SOURCE: S.C. Transportation Department