Road repair, maintenance must take precedent on DOT funding
By Natalie Olson
November 7, 2015
For the past three decades, South Carolina’s transportation system has been plagued by massive diversions of funds from basic needs like maintenance, repair, and upgrades to politically motivated, non-essential new highways. However, an effective upgrade in our transportation network will not happen without statewide transportation reform.
Without decisive action by our elected leaders, at the insistence of citizens, South Carolina will fail to address pressing current needs and meet the challenges of the future. Two critical steps will ensure that current funding will be more rationally deployed and, if it can be clearly justified, any increase in transportation funding will be spent on legitimate projects.
First, we must fix our existing roads and bridges before embarking on new construction projects. In Charleston County, hurricane evacuation routes are defunct and commuter routes are mired in gridlock. Meanwhile, politicians are funneling transportation funds and future bonding capacity to new construction projects.
Second, we must change the transportation funding system. Requiring decision-makers to rank transportation projects based on objective criteria eliminates the threat of political pandering and allows scarce resources to be spent on protecting our communities’ character, livability, and safety.
As Brian Hicks stated in his recent column about the death of the I-526 extension, whether or not Charleston has money to pay for road projects depends solely on our “status in Columbia.” This begs the question, do we really want our tax dollars thrown into a system where they are funneled to unnecessary projects by the politician with the most clout?
Charleston County’s transportation challenges are incontrovertible evidence that transportation reform is necessary. Currently, $420 million is approved by the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) and the Joint Bond Review Committee for the extension of I-526 to Johns Island. The most recent cost estimate by the S.C. Department of Transportation (SCDOT) puts the project upwards of $725 million.
County Council, the STIB, and the SCDOT have chosen to continue pursuing the extension of I-526 knowing that they need to find another $300 million and that construction is a decade or more away. And just to note, this delay is due to federal permitting laws and guidelines that require public hearings and new environmental impact statements, not because of “naysayers” like Hicks suggests.
Based on the SCDOT’s own projections, the I-526 extension will operate at a failing rate the day it opens and will do nothing to address the key chokepoints and hurricane evacuation routes on Johns Island. There is no question that there are far greater transportation improvement priorities in our region — and we need to act now if we want to get them done.
According to the SCDOT, within the next decade, the I-26 corridor in Charleston will face nine times the traffic of the proposed I-526 extension. Tens of thousands of commuters along with our region’s industrial leaders like Boeing and the State Ports Authority rely on this interstate every day. Improving the existing corridor or providing a mass transit alternative to I-26 ranks at the top of statewide priority lists, yet is neglected because funds are tied up in projects like the I-526 extension.
Perhaps even more imminent of a threat are the unsafe conditions at Main Road and U.S. 17 in Charleston County. Serving as the hurricane evacuation route for the Sea Islands, the entire intersection was impassable during recent king tides and rainstorms. Without funding for an expedited plan to fix this intersection with a flyover design, residents on Johns Island, Wadmalaw, Kiawah, and Seabrook are sitting ducks for the next weather event.
Our current transportation funding system is fiscally irresponsible. Prioritizing our region’s needs — funding projects that repair existing roads and bridges before new construction projects — must occur before any more money is taken from South Carolina taxpayers. Please let your legislator know that comprehensive transportation reform in the 2016 session matters to you.
Natalie Olson is the Land Use Program director and staff attorney for the Coastal Conservation League.