Road Funding Priorities Run Further Amok

rough road


Since the close of the 2013 legislative session, the confused priorities of the state’s transportation authorities have been on full display. Just before the session ended, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow the largely unaccountable State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) to borrow up to $500 million (through bonds) every year for “expansion and improvements to existing mainline interstates.” In the past, new infrastructure funds have been used on expansions rather than maintenance – that is, on new projects rather than on maintaining existing ones – and so far that has continued to be the case.

The South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) has just released a list of seven different projects to which the department would like to see this new source of STIB funds applied. There are a few notable facts concerning this list.

  • The projected total cost of the seven projects is $1.72 billion, meaning that to fund all the projects at their current projected costs would require over three years’ of use of the new STIB funds at full bonding capacity.
  • Six of the seven projects proposed by SCDOT include widening of existing roadways. In other words, most if not the majority of the new transportation dollars are already being requested for expansions rather than much-needed maintenance.
  • The only project that doesn’t include road widening is the highly controversial I 526 extension (itself an expansion). That project has been widely opposed both for the short sighted method of its funding and for the potentially negative environmental effects.

Most of these projects are still in the very early planning/request stage, but the history of South Carolina’s transportation authorities as well as some of their present actions suggest that many of the expansionary and costly projects will come to pass. In fact, transportation authorities are currently engaged in a battle with citizens in Aiken over an infrastructure project that is in important respects a microcosm of South Carolina’s broader infrastructure woes.

The highly controversial project clearly supported by some city officials as well as SCDOT and the STIB, but opposed by a majority of citizens commenting on the matter, seeks to widen the Hitchcock Parkway in Aiken from two to four lanes. The project budget is currently $26 million from various sources including $13 million from the State Transportation Improvement Program, $9 million from STIB, and $4 million from the City of Aiken’s portion of the Capital Project Sales Tax. Latest estimates contained in official planning documents (the ARTS 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan) on the cost of the project however place the projected costs at $41.3 million, leaving a $15 million shortfall between costs and funds budgeted.

So what exactly are Aiken residents going to get for $41.3 million (assuming the funding goes forward)? Some of the stated reasons for the project are to ease congestion on the parkway and to decrease travel time for those using the road. While supporters of the project no doubt claim and believe the widening of the parkway will be a significant positive contribution to these goals, others have done some math showing otherwise. Robert Gilbert, a civil engineer and businessman and one of many opponents of the four-lane proposal, has determined just how much time the average motorists can expect to save from the project as currently proposed.

According to Mr. Gilbert, “The Hitchcock Parkway is five miles in length, 3.5 miles zoned 45 mph and 1.5 miles zoned 55 mph.  One of the most frequently repeated complaints (and arguments advanced by “freeway” proponents) is that if an automobile is behind a large truck on a moderate grade in the 55 mph zone, sometimes the maximum speed is effectively limited to 45 mph.  To travel 1.5 miles at 55 mph takes 98 seconds, and to travel 1.5 miles at 45 mph takes 120 seconds. Therefore, it takes 22 seconds longer at the slower speed.

In essence, taxpayers will be shelling out $41.3 million dollars to save an average of 22 seconds whenever they use the Parkway (that’s almost $2 million per second saved). This sounds like a terrible bargain. Further, a recent biennial report commissioned by the city of Aiken that measures the volume of traffic on Aiken roads shows that traffic volume decreased on Hitchcock Parkway between 2010 and 2012. The report divided the Parkway into four segments all of which saw a decline in traffic from 2010 to 2012; one segment saw a decline of 26.2 percent. These findings hardly indicate the need for an expensive expansion to ease congestion.

In addition to the general low return on investment, Mr. Gilbert has also correctly pointed out another interesting part of this story as it relates to the STIB. According to the STIB’s own eligibility requirements, for projects to receive STIB funding the total cost of the project must exceed $100 million, something the Hitchcock Parkway expansion clearly fails to do. While STIB may claim its funding of the project meets its own criteria by lumping the project in with others in Aiken or by some other justification, the agency’s current financial involvement with the Hitchcock Parkway seems to violate the spirit of their requirements.

Finally, Aiken residents are opposed to the project for aesthetic and personal reasons as well. Expansion of the Parkway into four lanes may necessitate takings on the edges of residential and religious property. Others are concerned that historic trees along the existing parkway will have to be removed, and that the presence of a large freeway in the area will prove a distracting eyesore disrupting the natural beauty of nearby Hitchcock Woods. In brief, Aiken residents have no shortage of concerns and they are well justified in those they do have.

South Carolina transportation authorities have a history of prioritizing costly expansions at the expense of much-needed maintenance. The result is that despite being the 40th largest state in land mass, South Carolina has the 4th largest roadway system maintained by a state government. This huge and constantly expanding network of roads has led to predictably poor maintenance. The Nerve has reported, for instance, that the state has paid $4.8 million between July 1, 2008 and March 31, 2013 to motorists who experienced damages resulting primarily from “defect/maintenance” or potholes.

The bottom line is simple. Road conditions in South Carolina aren’t likely to improve unless several reforms happen first. Unaccountable agencies such as the STIB should be eliminated, not given more funds with which to issue more debt and expand the state’s road network even further. Additionally, the legislature and transportation authorities should mandate that as long as any South Carolina roads are below an acceptable grade (rated by agencies such as the Federal Highway Administration) transportation dollars should be spent only on maintenance and not new construction.

While the legislature has already mandated that the STIB receive new funds with which it can issue $500 million in new bonds this year, it’s not too late to put a stop to unnecessary debt and construction in years to come.

*Update: City of Aiken officials have announced they no longer plan to move forward with the proposed Hitchcock Parkway expansion and have returned $7 million to the STIB which was originally granted for the project. Read more about this development at The Nerve.

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