In the weeds: Department of Transportation can’t afford maintenance

Kathy Bell walks down a path on Azalea Avenue, from a bus stop on Cosgrove Avenue, to her home Thursday. Bell has contacted the Department of Transportation about cutting the tall weeds and was told they could not get to it until August. Buy this photo

Standing amid tall weeds, Kathy Bell fretted about the condition of the overgrown, narrow dirt path to her North Charleston bus stop.

The possibility of encountering a snake in the brush worried her. The other option, walking on the edge of the road, seemed too dangerous.

She uses the roadside trail daily. Kids do too, some of them on the way to nearby Mary Ford Elementary School, she said.

“You’ve got a lot of people who walk down this road day and night,” she said.

Bell’s complaint reflects an ongoing struggle at the state Department of Transportation to manage the fourth-largest state-maintained highway system in the country in a time of dwindling resources.

The total maintenance budget for fiscal year 2014 is $281 million, a funding increase of 4 percent over last year. But the DOT says a cash infusion of $1.2 billion is needed to bring the state’s existing road system up to par, and then $912 million annually would be required to maintain a “B” level of service, which is considered good.

Roadside mowing operations currently get a grade of “B,” although maintenance overall gets a grade of “D,” according to a DOT assessment.

The South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads says a gas tax increase is the way to fund nearly $50 billion in road construction and repairs in the next 20 years. The state’s 16-cents-a-gallon gas tax, which is the third-lowest in the country, hasn’t gone up since 1987.

For Bell, the problem is much smaller. She is concerned about tall roadside grass on about 200 yards of Azalea Avenue near Cosgrove Avenue.

The grass was last cut in May, she said, and the DOT told her it can’t be mowed again until next month. That is not good enough for her.

“It’s an eyesore and it’s dangerous,” she said.

The situation reflects poorly on her nearby neighborhood, where yards are neatly mowed, she said.

“Why do we have to wait until August with the rains that are coming now?” she said.

James Law, spokesman for the DOT, said the weeds have sprouted quickly because of unusually wet weather.

“I don’t think it’s a mowing issue. I think it’s just the rain that we’ve had. It’s growing like crazy,” he said.

Law said the DOT maintenance office told him the mowing was on schedule and it would be done sometime in August. He said further information on the issue was not available because the maintenance staff was focused on a sinkhole that recently opened on Interstate 26 near Ridgeville in the eastbound fast lane.

In late June, North Charleston City Council approved a three-year, $339,000 contract for landscape maintenance of Interstate 526 from Interstate 26 to the Ashley River.

The city considers that area important to its image, and it was unhappy with how the DOT maintained it, said city spokesman Ryan Johnson.

Mayor Keith Summey said people blame the city for the appearance of roadsides. The DOT reimburses the city $29 per acre for road landscaping. Summey said the payment is “ludicrous” because it is so low.

The issue of roadside mowing also has cropped up this summer in Marion and Horry counties. DOT officials said rainy weather had slowed or stalled the grass-cutting.

Last summer, a motorist complained in August about six-foot-tall weeds along a section of Interstate 526 in Mount Pleasant, a situation that he said did not reflect well on the community.

The DOT said the weeds got that high because the affected section of the interstate was being re-surfaced. The weeds were mowed not long after the complaint.

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