Cheap S.C. gas’ hidden price

State Sens. Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, left, and John Courson, R-Columbia, right, wait out another debate on road funding.

The advantages of living in South Carolina include our pristine coast, often pleasant weather (though not necessarily in July) and mostly friendly people.

But before counting our state’s distinction of having the nation’s lowest gas prices last week as an untainted benefit, consider a contributing — and ultimately self-defeating — factor in that illusory bargain.

While being No. 1 in cheap gas sounds positive, that status stems in large part from the overall negative — and perilous — policy of having one of the nation’s lowest gas taxes.

And despite continued common-sense appeals to finally raise that tax to address dangerous funding shortfalls in road maintenance and construction, the Republican-dominated General Assembly again refused this year to take that overdue course.

Thus, our state gas tax is stuck at its 1987 level. Thus, our state’s roads and bridges are still stuck in continuing decay.

According to a study last year by The Road Information Program (TRIP), a national transportation research organization, that deteriorating road system imposed annual additional expenses of $1,200 to the average S.C. driver.

The researchers who produced that report, “South Carolina Transportation by the Numbers: Meeting the State’s Need for Safe and Efficient Mobility,” found that 46 percent of our major roads and highways were in poor condition. This reflects a steep — and continuing — climb from the already-risky 32 percent level in 2008.

The TRIP study also documented that one-fifth of South Carolina’s bridges were “functionally obsolete.”

That alarming reality was reconfirmed when Tuesday’s Rock Hill Herald reported:

“Drivers heading from York and Chester counties to Union County on S.C. 9 and S.C. 49 will have to take a 35-mile detour for almost a month [starting next Monday] as the S.C. Department of Transportation makes repairs to a bridge crossing the Broad River at the small town of Lockhart.”

State Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said in a written statement: “This bridge is an example of the type of concerns that we have raised regarding the infrastructure crisis we are facing here in S.C. A long-term, sustainable funding solution must be found in order to address the years of deferred maintenance on the existing road and bridge network for our state.”

And the toll taken by our failing road system transcends financial measure. The TRIP study ranked South Carolina as tied with West Virginia for the highest overall traffic fatality rate in the nation. Analysts persuasively cite our bad roads as a crucial contributor to that deadly ranking.

Yes, last month state lawmakers did pass, and Gov. Nikki Haley did sign, a bill that will provide $2.2 billion in road funding over the next decade. But the bill relies on bonds — in other words, borrowing. And the amount of money coming, while significant, falls far short of covering the state’s infrastructure needs.

Meanwhile, a practical source of revenue remains untapped by a gas tax that’s no higher than it was way back when Ronald Reagan was still president.

That’s a foolishly stubborn manifestation of a knee-jerk, anti-tax mentality in a state where 30 percent of the gas tax — in effect, a user’s fee — is paid by non-residents.

So sure, at first glance it looks nice to have the nation’s lowest gas prices.

But look more closely, and you’ll see that it would be much nicer to have a safer, sufficient and sustainable state highway system.