Tourism leaders warn industry suffering from bad roads

In a Sept. 24, 2014 file photo, traffic moves along a section of Interstate 26 that is being widened southwest of Columbia. A group of nine chambers of commerce along the South Carolina coast warned on Tuesday that the state’s deteriorating roads are putting the state’s tourism industry at a competitive disadvantage. The tourism industry, centered along the state’s coast, is an $18 billion industry.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The chorus calling for lawmakers and Gov. Nikki Haley to fix South Carolina’s roads got louder on Tuesday as tourism officials warned deteriorating roads are threatening the state’s $18 billion tourism industry.

The Coastal Chambers Alliance urged the General Assembly and Haley to come up with the money and a plan to fix South Carolina’s roads.

The alliance is comprised of nine chambers of commerce along the coast, the center of South Carolina’s tourism industry. Tourism provides almost 115,000 jobs and generates $1.6 billion in tax revenue, according to the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

“From our perspective, if state government were a parent and the infrastructure system were a child, government agencies would have rushed in to put this child into foster care and labeled the parent negligent,” Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, told The Associated Press.

The alliance said a majority of South Carolina’s 20 million visitors each year visit the coast which is also the state’s fastest-growing area for permanent residents.

On summer weekends, U.S. 501 is snarled for miles as visitors creep along trying to enter or leave Myrtle Beach. Dean said lengthy waits in traffic jams mean less time people can enjoy their vacation.

“The bigger issue is when your first impression and last impression of South Carolina is potholes and traffic jams, invariably some visitors will end up going elsewhere,” he said.

The Department of Transportation says it will need an extra $1.5 billion a year to get all state roads in good condition by 2040.

A nonprofit group, The Road Information Program, says almost half of the state’s major roads were in poor shape last year and such roads cost the average South Carolina motorist at least $1,100 extra a year. The figure represents the cost of maintenance for vehicles from pothole and road damage, extra fuel and the cost of fatal crashes.

“The current system is placing our coast and our state at a competitive disadvantage for both economic development and tourism,” Bryan Derreberry, president and CEO of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said in a written statement.

South Carolina’s almost 17-cent-a-gallon gas tax has been unchanged for 30 years, the alliance said, noting that neighboring North Carolina and Georgia raise more money for highways. North Carolina’s gas tax is 39 cents a gallon while Georgia gas and use taxes amount to almost 27 cents a gallon.

Haley opposes raising the gas tax. She is expected to outline her road improvement plan in the coming weeks.

And Dean said raising the gas tax alone will not be enough, and the state will have to find other money.

“We have let ourselves fall so far behind that raising the gas tax is not a panacea,” he said.

He noted that noted Horry County, where Myrtle Beach is located, has invested $2 billion in roads over two decades largely through a local option sales tax, much of it paid by visitors.