Growing population putting more pressure on South Carolina’s roads

Railroad tracks and rush hour traffic on I-26 and I-526 interchange near Remount Road.

South Carolina’s population will increase by 600,000 people in the next 15 years, putting pressure on a road system in need of a massive fix.

Meanwhile, federal highway dollars coming to South Carolina have declined significantly since 2008, and the debate over taking up the slack by increasing the state’s 16.75-cents-per-gallon gas tax remains stalled over the governor tying it to an income-tax cut.

Some experts believe a greater sense of urgency is needed to keep South Carolina’s infrastructure from becoming dangerously crowded.

“Basically we’re doing very little,” said Kent Gourdin, director of the Global Logistics and Transportation Program at the College of Charleston. “This is a big and wide open problem and we’re kind of dinking around it.”

Much of the growth is expected to be targeted on the coast as retirees move to desirable areas around Beaufort, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

An Associated Press analysis this week of all 50 states shows the amount of federal dollars South Carolina has received from the Highway Trust Fund declined by nearly $43 million since 2008, or more than 6 percent. Lawmakers estimate the amount would be just enough to maybe add an extra lane to 15 or 20 miles of interstate, or to repave many more miles of secondary roads. It’s also a fraction of $1.5 billion per year that highway officials say is needed for the next three decades to meet current maintenance and expansion needs.

Gov. Nikki Haley recently advocated bumping the gas tax up by 10 cents per gallon over the next three years as part of a three-part package that included the income tax cut and a restructuringof the state Department of Transportation. Debate over dueling plans proposed by lawmakers, however, means it might be weeks before a roads bill gets to the House floor.

Many advocates say raising the gas tax would be the easiest way to increase the dedicated pot of road money. South Carolina’s gas tax hasn’t been raised in nearly three decades, while fuel efficiency in cars has increased.

Attempts have been made before to adjust the gas tax. More than a decade ago, former transportation director Buck Limehouse suggested cutting the gas tax by a nickel, dropping it to 11 cents, while imposing a 5 percent sales tax, potenbtially raising more money as the price of gas rose.

As Limehouse reasoned, the sales tax would rise with inflation, unlike a static gas tax that was untouchable because of resistance to raising it in a GOP-controlled Legislature.

Limehouse said he’d sold the idea to then-Republican Gov. David Beasley. Trouble was, Beasley lost his bid for re-election.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551