When the first increase since 1987 of the gas tax kicks in Saturday, the S.C. Department of Transportation can count on millions more to fix the state’s crumbling 41,000-mile network of roads and bridges.
Transportation Secretary Christy Hall says her agency plans to make safety improvements for rural roads near metro areas the top priority as well as launching a series of resurfacing projects. However, to get the work done, the state’s construction industry will be challenged to find and train workers.
“Our first priority will be to fund the rural road safety program at $50 million and get it going,” Hall said in an email to the Columbia Regional Business Report. Hall recommended earlier this year to commissioners that the Transportation Department launch a 10-year program to reduce deaths on the targeted rural roads.
Nearly 30% of the state’s rural fatal and serious injury crashes take place on just 5% of the S.C. highway system outside of urban areas, Hall said in an earlier interview. “Our interstate highways and U.S. primary routes in our rural areas are the deadliest roads in the state,” she added.
In 2016, South Carolina recorded 975 highway fatalities, down slightly from 979 deaths in 2015. However, the state has seen the highway death rate climb dramatically from 823 fatalities in 2014 and 767 in 2013.
Sifting through the data, staffers identified nearly 2,000 miles of the roads — interstates, U.S. highways and S.C. roads — that are the worst of the worst.
About 3 out of every 10 fatalities on the targeted roads are the result of vehicles running off the pavement, Hall said. And about a third of those deaths are caused by the vehicle striking an object such as a tree or utility pole, Hall said.
Remedies include installing rumble strips to warn motorists that they’re driving off the road, raising pavement markings, installing highly reflective signs and wider pavement markings, building guardrails, using specialized pavement treatments, widening or paving shoulders, widening clear zones adjacent to the roadways and relocating drainage ditches farther from roadways.
The Transportation Department “will ramp up resurfacing projects year over year,” Hall said. “We will advance those projects as quickly as the revenues are available and do it in a way to allow our in-state industry to grow. By year 6 we expect to have grown the resurfacing program statewide by approximately $350 million on top of what we are doing now.”
The new law, which the General Assembly passed despite Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto, raises the gas tax a total of 12 cents per gallon over the next six years to 28.75 cents. Currently the state has the second lowest gas tax in the country at 16.75 cents per gallon.
The increase equates to roughly $1.40 a week for a driver who travels 15,000 miles a year in a car that averages 25 miles per gallon.
Besides the bump at the pump, the law creates new fees and hikes others to produce $177 million in road funding for the next fiscal year.
Once the 2-cents-per gallon gas tax increase is phased in, the law would raise about $633 million more in road funding. In addition, the law also allows motorists to itemize the increase in gas tax to recover the fee during the 6-year phase-in period, which would cut other taxes by $105 million.
Meanwhile, the state construction industry has been clawing back from the depths of the Great Recession when cash-strapped state and local governments slashed spending. Fewer projects, led to layoffs and the loss of thousands of workers who either moved away or switched careers.
Four out of five contractors in South Carolina — or 83% — indicated they are struggling to find craft construction workers, according to a 2016 survey by the Associated General Contractors of America. That’s compared to 69% nationally. Further, 7 out of 10 contractors here have vowed to hire more people in the coming year, though only a small percentage believe it’s going to get easier to do so.
The industry faces the challenge of competing for new workers, said Marty McKee, chairman of the CAGC board and vice president of Liberty-headquartered King Asphalt.
“It takes a skilled workforce to work on infrastructure,” McKee said during a recent industry program at the Statehouse. “What we’re hearing is that the jobs are there, the work is available. It’s just that we need workers; we need more skilled workers.”
For the Transportation Department, the gas tax increase will help close an estimated $1 billion a year funding gap to improve the state’s roads.
The money can’t come too soon. A 2016 study by the Legislative Audit Council found that the condition of the state’s roads and bridges has “deteriorated significantly” from 2008 through 2014, even as the Transportation Department has added 760 miles of lanes.
The percentage of primary roads rated in “poor condition” increased from 31% in 2008 to 54% in 2014, the report said. It added that the percentage of poor-condition secondary roads eligible for federal aid increased from 31% in 2008 to 46% in 2014, and the percentage of secondary roads not eligible for federal aid increased from 33% in 2008 to 54% in 2014, according to the study.
“It will take time to climb out of the hole we have dug for ourselves over the past 30 years,” Hall said.