The price of potholes S.C. roads in bad shape, costing Charleston drivers $1,168 year, report finds

Gene Hess replaces tie rods Thursday on a Volvo at Gerald’s in West Ashley. Front-end parts, such as ball joints and tie rods, are among items that need replacing when cars run over potholes and damaged roads, according to Gerald’s manager Bubba Latore.

Scott Gould dodges potholes like he’s playing a video game during his commute from Johns Island to downtown Charleston.

He drives the route most days in his 2005 Volvo SUV and knows where the ruts are. He sometimes crosses the centerline to avoid them.

Crumbling roads like the ones Gould encounters are found statewide, as well as many congested thoroughfares, according to a report released Thursday from The Road Information Program, or TRIP, a national nonprofit organization. Those conditions make the roads unsafe and cost state drivers $3 billion each year in lost time and additional operating, fuel and crash-related costs. The report said nearly half the state’s roads are in poor condition.

In the Charleston area, the report found poor road conditions cost motorists, on average, $1,168 per year: $294 in additional vehicle operating costs, $647 for fuel and lost time on congested roads and $227 in crash-related costs.

Gould said he has lost a lot of time commuting on congested roads, especially during rush hours. He avoids driving on Maybank Highway because of traffic snarls there, especially at the intersection with River Road.

The TRIP report is based on data compiled in June, said Rocky Moretti, TRIP’s director of policy and research. It includes data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration and the state Department of Transportation.

Representatives from TRIP, a transportation research group, presented the highlights of the report Thursday at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. Chamber officials also spoke about the state’s deteriorating roads and the need to improve them to provide efficient mobility for motorists and stimulate economic growth.

According to the report, the paved surfaces on 46 percent of the state’s major roads and highways are in poor condition and 38 percent are in fair condition. Only 16 percent are in good condition. That represents a drop from 2008, when 32 percent were in poor condition, 49 percent were in fair condition and 19 percent were in good condition.

The Charleston metro area fares a little better, with 37 percent of major locally and state-maintained roads in mediocre or poor condition. Twenty-three percent are in fair condition and 40 percent in good condition.

The report did not define what factors made up the conditions.

Chamber spokeswoman Laura Bright, said her group didn’t play a role in creating the report, but it sponsored the presentation because “infrastructure is one of our priority items on our legislative agenda this year.”

Many state legislators agree that the state’s roads are desperately in need of repairs. But so far, they haven’t come up with a solid plan to pay for them. And Gov. Nikki Haley hasn’t yet revealed her transportation plan for the year, but she has said she’s staunchly opposed to raising the state’s gas tax to pay for new roads.

But local drivers have been reaching into their pockets to cover the cost of car repairs caused by potholes and other poor road conditions.

Richard Green, owner of Richard’s Automotive Repair on St. Andrews Boulevard, said he sees a lot of cars with suspension-system problems, which often are caused by potholes. Vehicles usually don’t have suspension problems until they have been driven more than 100,000 miles, he said. “If you see suspension problem on a car with 50,000 or 60,000 miles, it’s because something happened,” he said.

Other problems caused by rough roads include bent rims, ball-joint issues, tire damage and an occasional radiator cracked by a piece of asphalt bouncing up from the highway.

TRIP Executive Director Will Wilkins said his organization is producing reports on conditions in various states to “bring attention to the need for Congress to address our transportation infrastructure crisis.”

In recent years, federal money for surface transportation has been provided to states through short-term extensions of a funding act, Wilkins said. “That hurts (state) DOT’s ability for long-term planning,” he said. “Congress needs to pass a long-term surface transportation plan with a reliable funding source,” Wilkins said.

Some national leaders are discussing the possibility of raising the federal gas tax, which is 18.4 cents per gallon and hasn’t been raised in 20 years. But GOP leaders in the new Republican-controlled Congress say there’s little support for such a move.

Bryan Derreberry, president of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said his group is pushing legislators to raise the state gas tax 25 cents per gallon, from 16.75 cents to 41.75 cents. The state gas tax hasn’t been raised since 1987.

Chamber officials have said they are promoting the 25-cent jump even though they know the General Assembly likely won’t approve that much.

Derreberry said it would be best to simply raise the tax the full 25 cents, which would bring in enough money to deal with the problems. “Instead of piecemealing it over a number of years, let’s look at what it takes to fix it,” he said.

The chamber recently surveyed 185 business leaders and 95 percent of them said roads and other infrastructure were their top concern, he said.

TRIP leaders also made a presentation Thursday in Columbia. Four of the state’s seven DOT commissioners attended the meeting, including newly elected Chairman Jim Rozier of Moncks Corner. The commissioners also were pushing for a gas-tax increase, although they didn’t say how much of an increase they were seeking.

But a tax increase of any kind is tough to get support for in Republican-dominated South Carolina, Rozier said. Lawmakers would have to be willing to break their pledges to reject any tax increase, which they made when the state’s roads weren’t crumbling. “You sign something that ties your hands tomorrow, that’s kind of foolish,” Rozier said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.