The massive growth in the Charleston area hasn't gone unnoticed by anyone who finds themselves deadlocked in traffic during their morning commute — but the true extent of the area's infrastructure woes may come as a surprise.
Every year, state transportation agencies report to the Federal Highway Administration, which compiles its annual National Bridge Inventory. This includes the more than 8,400 state-owned bridges in South Carolina, 1,537 of which are currently rated as substandard as of last week. Grading practically every raised, suspended, or otherwise elevated stretch of road in the country, a look at the numbers in South Carolina reveals a major concern for the state's fastest-growing areas.
Beginning on a hopeful note, Charleston County holds a fairly healthy ranking when it comes to "structurally deficient" bridges, which suffer from at least one defect that could use a little attention. While less than 9 percent of Charleston County bridges are worse for wear, more than 20 percent of the bridges in Edgefield, Lancaster, and Lee counties are graded as deficient — twice the state average.
State Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall addressed the concern over structurally deficient bridges in her most recent "State of the SCDOT" address to the state Senate Transportation Committee in February. Acknowledging this gap in the system, Hall told senators that an additional $46 million in annual investments would be beneficial in continuing to improve substandard bridges across the state. Now for the bad news for Charleston County drivers.
According to routes evaluated in the most recent National Bridge Inventory, Charleston County leads the state in the percentage of local bridges deemed functionally obsolete — meaning that these routes are inadequate to handle required traffic needs. With more than 20 percent of the bridges in the county falling under this designation, Charleston County stands just above Lancaster and Greenville counties in terms of overwhelmed overpasses and holds the undesired distinction of having more than twice the statewide average of functionally obsolete bridges.
Of the more than 50 Charleston County routes graded as functionally obsolete, the Highway Administration recommends that 28 be widened, including additional rehabilitation or replacement work. But since money is always an issue, what is the estimated cost of all this congestion?
National transportation research group TRIP has provided regular assessments of the economic impacts of road conditions in South Carolina. In the most recent evaluation of state roads, the nonprofit organization determined that chronic congestion costs the local community an estimated $1,047 annually per driver as a result of lost time and wasted fuel. This means that the typical Charleston motorist loses an additional 41 hours every year waiting in traffic, again placing the metro area at the top of the state in terms of congestion, ahead of Columbia and Myrtle Beach. In total for the Charleston area, traffic congestion contributes to an added $1.8 billion in costs to the community.
Coupled together, housing and transportation expenses account for almost 60 percent of the average household income for typical residents in the Charleston region and more than 70 percent for low-income residents, according to the 2016 Regional Economic Scorecard created by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and Regional Development Alliance.
For comparison, expenditures reported by the South Carolina Department of Transportation show that $32.3 million went to roads projects in Charleston in the most recent fiscal year. More than $9.9 million of that total went to bridges, while $4.8 million was spent on rehabilitating local roads, with another $4.8 million going toward widenings. In total, nearly 4 percent of state improvement expenditures by the Department of Transportation ended up going to Charleston County.
With the current conditions of state and local roadways outlined, it's easy to see why many South Carolina lawmakers are rushing to reach some sort of agreement on a roads bill to begin undoing some of the damage. Last week, a six-member panel of legislators began working toward a compromise after the state Senate and House of Representatives presented two disparate roads bills. One major point of disagreement was the amount by which the state's gas tax would be raised in order to fund improvements. With South Carolina's 16.75-cent gas tax currently the second-lowest rate in the nation, a compromise was struck to increase the tax rate by 12 cents over a period of six years. Such a move would eventually increase funding for the state's ailing highway system by $600 million a year.
Of course, any increase is good news for those tasked with maintaining the state's roads. Earlier this year, the SCDOT reported that the state is currently spending $415 million a year on pavement efforts, but that number should be closer to $900 million a year considering the current state of South Carolina's roads. It is currently estimated that it would cost $300 million just to maintain the 17 percent of paved roadways that are considered to be in good condition. That doesn't factor in the $8 billion that would be needed to fix the 54 percent of state roadways where the pavement is considered to be in poor condition. An additional annual investment of $500 million would be needed to bring all paved roadways to a good condition, according to the SCDOT.
With the clock running out on this year's legislative session, South Carolina lawmakers are closer than they've been in years to raising the state gas tax, which hasn't been increased in three decades. The question that remains is whether or not such a tax hike is the answer to the state's crumbling infrastructure or is it just a bridge too far.