The rotten condition of Columbia’s roads are finally being addressed, but a long-term solution is sorely needed
Dec 07, 2018 10:58AM
● By Kathleen Maris
By John Jeter
Despite efforts from the South Carolina General Assembly, state agencies, road contractors, economic development agencies, and advocacy groups, the Midlands appears to be stuck in a traffic jam backed up 30 years. While only now en route to clearing over the next decade, time and the elements keep pounding bridges, dams, and roads paved with good intention.
“Mother Nature has the greatest weigh-in,” says Tommy Crosby, spokesman for the Department of Health and Environmental Control, which regulates some 2,400 dams, many of them privately owned.
Miraculously, only two small dams in the Midlands ruptured from October’s Hurricane Florence, according to published reports. Two years before, Hurricane Matthew toppled 25 dams. In 2015, some 20 inches of flood-inducing rains breached 51 dams, 36 of which were state-regulated, according to a 113-page National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report.
“More than $7 billion in damages has occurred from flood and hurricane events in the last 25 years,” the state Department of Natural Resources reported. The 2015 storm delivered $145 million in damages to Columbia, $356 million in Richland County, and $62.7 throughout Lexington County of the $2.2 billion total, federal and state documents show.
Natural disasters notwithstanding, the state’s 41,000 highway miles and 8,400 bridges present costlier, longer-term challenges.
The General Assembly took at shot those last year, overturning Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of the S.C. Infrastructure and Economic Development Reform Act. The legislation, which levies a controversial 2-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax over each of the next six years, along with miscellaneous other increased fees, is expected to generate $600 million a year for construction projects.
Carl Blackstone, president and CEO of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, calls that a “drop in the bucket,” adding, “We need money for resurfacing and maintenance, but it does nothing to address new capacity.”
Next year, however, the state begins its largest roads initiative in history, the $1.5 billion reconstruction of the I-26/I-126/I-20 corridor, which the state Department of Transportation (SCDOT) politely calls “Carolina Crossroads” and everyone else refers to as “Malfunction Junction.” The project, which could take a decade to complete, is expected to boost capacity from the current 141,000 vehicles a day to 160,000 daily — enough to satisfy Midlands traffic demands to 2040, published reports say.
Blackstone and others aren’t convinced that’s enough, especially since the region’s population is expected to grow 70 percent over the next 20 years.
“We have to ask ourselves, how many more lanes of interstate do we need? Do we need to start looking at rail? Do we need another belt-line? Do we need some type of connector from I-26 to I-77? What do we need to do to make sure goods and services are getting to [the Port of] Charleston faster?” Blackstone says.
Meantime, Midlands roads are among the state’s most dangerous. More than 2,300 crashes were reported along the corridor from Jan. 1, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2014, according to a SCDOT and Federal Highway Administration report released in July.
Meanwhile, Washington, D.C.-based national transportation research group TRIP notes that the cost of accidents caused by poor roads is high: “Motor vehicle crashes in which roadway design was likely a contributing factor cost South Carolina motorists $1.8 billion per year in medical costs, lost productivity, travel delays, workplace costs, insurance costs, and legal costs,” the report notes.
TRIP also states, “Driving on roads in need of repair costs South Carolina motorists $2.1 billion a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs — $558 per motorist.”
Even worse, through May, 39 people died this year on Lexington County roads alone — the highest fatality rate in South Carolina, a state whose roads rank the third most-fatal in the nation, as WIS-TV reported in August. Of the 19 fatalities during the 2015 storm, eight were auto-related drowning, NOAA reported.
“We have some of the most dangerous roads in the country,” says Ted Pitts, president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. “We're doing this [spending] not only for safety and for the people that live here now, but we're also helping to continue the prosperity we see from economic development.”
Along with others interviewed for this article, he calls Bill 3516, which led to Act 40, “a good first step,” but he adds, “You haven’t seen a single impact of 3516 yet. As those resources get into the pipeline, you’re going to continue to see more work out there.”
Perhaps, but who’s going to do it?
The state Chamber’s website says that for every $1 billion in roads investments, nearly 28,000 jobs are created. While that may assuage taxpayers, Carolinas AGC (Associated General Contractors, or CAGC) cites a more serious problem: the state’s low unemployment rate.
“There’s not one member I talk to that is not looking for workers,” says Leslie Clark, CACG’s director of government relations and divisions. “I can’t put a specific figure on the specific amount of folks we need, but I would probably say that any contractor you talk to, whether they’re doing highway work or building work, they’re looking for workers.”
Jennifer Patterson, executive director of the S.C. Alliance to Fix Our Roads, agrees that a massive spending package is a good first step. However, she says, “We can't sit back and think the problems are solved and roads will suddenly improve. If that is the mindset, we will never climb out the hole, literally, that years of neglect have created.”
Meanwhile, she calls for “community patience and a continued focus on the importance of infrastructure to our economy and overall quality of life.”
SCDOT has convened numerous public hearings to address those very issues, among others, regarding Carolina Crossroads. In September, in fact, the agency canceled a proposed I-26 bridge connecting Tram and Beatty roads due to opposition from Northwest Columbia’s Whitehall neighborhood; the $3 million to $5 million span was part of the Crossroads plan.
Still, at the end of the day, as Crosby points out, “Mother Nature gets the ultimate vote.”