Next week, the Legislature is expected to debate whether cities and counties should be given the right to buy back state-owned roads.

Many 'state' roads have a local feel

South Carolina's highway system is the nation's fourth largest, but half its mileage is made up of smaller streets not eligible for federal highway dollars.

Type of road Miles Percent of total roads

Interstate 851 2%

Primary (U.S. and S.C. highways) 9,472 23%

Federal Aid Secondary 10,271 25%

Non Federal Aid Secondary 20,821 50%

Source: S.C. Department of Transportation

The House vote will come as part of the larger budget debate, but even if the measure were to pass the Legislature and get signed by Gov. Nikki Haley, it's unclear what difference it might make.

On one hand, cities have clashed occasionally with the state Department of Transportation over how state-owned streets in the city should be maintained, improved or landscaped.

For instance, a Charleston nonprofit raised thousands of dollars to plant live oaks along western Calhoun Street, but the state nixed the plan. However, Mayor Joe Riley said most times, those issues eventually get ironed out.

The road buy-back idea has the potential to be a win-win: The state could reduce the number of minor roads in its system - which is currently the nation's fourth-largest in terms of mileage, despite South Carolina's relatively small size - while cities and counties could have a freer hand to improve some of their most important public spaces.

But whatever interest Lowcountry mayors might have as far as gaining control over local streets is more than offset by their concern that it will be a bad financial deal for their cities.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey's skepticism is typical.

"If they're going to give us the resources to maintain the roads, fine," he said, "but the reason they want to pass them down is they don't have the resources."

An open-ended deal

The House proposal would let the state Department of Transportation negotiate with cities or counties interested in buying state roads within their jurisdiction.

To help local governments pay for their future maintenance, the state would kick in as much as 25 percent of its "C" funds - state money currently allotted to counties for road work - or about $17 million.

That's not much, said Melissa Carter, a legislative liaison with the S.C. Municipal Association.

"There are a limited number of roads that could participate in this," she said. "Once you reach the end of the bank, you reach the end of the bank. This is essentially a pilot program."

Carter said the legislation as written would allow for the transfer only of residential streets, but she said cities would be more likely to be interested in acquiring downtown streets - where their economic development efforts are focused. She said the association will try to get that changed.

Because the buy-back program would be optional, cities are not necessarily opposed to it. They're not necessarily excited, either, because the current proposal is "a little bit open-ended," Carter said.

"I think everybody is just waiting to see exactly how it's going to work because there are no details yet," she said. "It's a concept. Several cities are interested in seeing what it's all about - at least open to the possibility."

'Not their fault'

Some of the Lowcountry's largest municipalities aren't that interested, at least not at this point, according to their mayors.

"My first blush thought is, 'Of course the state wants to give us roads!' My first thought would be, 'Why do I want them?'" Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page said. "As a municipality, I don't know why I would go out looking for more roads to own because I have enough of my own that need work."

Still, Mount Pleasant has had its brushes with the DOT, including over how the ends of state-owned roads in the Old Village should be beautified. Also, the town sometimes has not been able to convince the state to allow certain traffic calming steps or other changes to limit cut-through traffic. "A lot of times, our hands are literally tied because the state won't approve measures that would limit cut-throughs and speeding in certain neighborhoods," Page said.

Riley said the city and state have had a lot of discussions over the years, but the state often has come around, such as with its decision to allow speed humps on several state-owned downtown streets.

"We have a very good relationship with DOT and are able to work through many issues, not all," Riley said. "We do have some issues over trees and those things," such as installing traffic lights at certain intersections or reducing the speed limit on parts of Folly Road near the Wappoo Cut.

Summey said the larger issue is the unfunded maintenance on state roads - estimated at $29 billion in future years - and the governor's unwillingness to raise the gas tax to address it.

"I think the maintenance is the big issue, but there's no sense in fighting DOT because quite honestly, it's not their fault," he said. "They can only do so much with the money they're given."

State Sen. Larry Grooms, a Charleston Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said the buy-back idea is probably one whose time hasn't come.

"It would have to be a mutually good deal for the state and the county," he said. "Right now, I don't think the DOT could afford to do that, but that's not to say it wouldn't happen sometime in the future."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.