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Berkeley County officials say taking over some road projects from the state Department of Transportation will allow those projects to be completed more quickly.  Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

Whenever Meeting Street needs anything beyond a minor pothole patch, Charleston has to clear it with the state.

Got repaving that has to be done? Ask the Department of Transportation.

Want to change the speed limit, add a bike lane or put up a road sign? Somebody in Columbia has to sign off.

Crazy as it might seem, Charleston doesn’t own one of its most famous streets. South Carolina does.

City officials have groused about this insanity for years, usually when awaiting routine — and routinely overdue — maintenance on Meeting, King or any of the other numerous Charleston streets that fall under the DOT’s authority.

But now that the state has offered to give some of these roads to local governments, many officials are hesitant.

As they should be.

Road maintenance is expensive, and many of South Carolina’s poorer communities — and even relatively affluent cities like Charleston — simply can’t afford it.

Even though the DOT promises to pay in advance for 40 years’ worth of maintenance.

“Once we accept these roads and they give us whatever money that is, when the money runs out, that’s it,” Charleston County Councilman Teddie Pryor warns. “We’re going to be responsible for the roads for a lifetime.”

He’s absolutely right.

Driven into a ditch

As The Post and Courier’s Abigail Darlington reports, South Carolina has the fourth-largest road system in the nation — even though we’re mid-pack among states for population, and 40th in land area.

Part of the reason the DOT is $40 billion behind in road repairs is because it’s responsible for more than 41,000 of the state’s 76,000 miles of road.

That’s ridiculous, but this problem goes back to a time before there were many roads. Since the late-19th century, the Legislature has sought to control pretty much everything in South Carolina.

Because control is power.

It was 1949 before there was even a Charleston County Council. Before that, the county was run by the legislative delegation.

So the Department of Transportation was founded with a job quickly growing too big to handle, and politics made it worse. For decades, officials expanded state programs, built shiny new things ... and regularly cut taxes. Something — in this case, pesky routine maintenance — was going to suffer.

And our roads are certainly insufferable.

Christy Hall, the state secretary of transportation, has offered this voluntary program to turn local roads over to locals in good faith. She says many communities have begged for authority over their own roads, and she’s right.

But Hall is also trying to right a ship that struck an iceberg long before she came along.

Problem is, when that DOT repair money inevitably runs out, local governments will have no way to afford necessary road repairs. They have far fewer avenues to raise money than the state. Why? The state won’t let them.

It’s a power thing.

Proceed with caution

In reality, many local governments already take care of state roads.

Charleston County routinely handles maintenance on streets over which it has no jurisdiction, simply because the work has to be done. It’s pragmatic.

Sure, the state reimburses the county — and, as Hall points out, some of the money from the recent gas tax increase is trickling down to local governments. Which helps.

But still, given the option of outright owning these roads, several communities (including Richland County) have flinched. With good reason.

Take this, for instance: Mount Pleasant’s total annual budget is around $150 million. Widening 5 miles of S.C. Highway 41 is going to cost more than $130 million.

The Crosstown drainage system, currently under construction, costs about the same as Charleston’s operating budget in any given year.

The DOT has so many roads to tend to that it will never catch up. But locals won’t be able to do any better without serious help from the state. That’s the rub.

Local governments can cut down on bureaucracy, and control their own destinies, by buying into the DOT’s plan. But they’ll have to protect the money DOT gives them, and perhaps negotiate extra funding to repair flooding problems caused by those roads.

Hint, hint.

Charleston, North Charleston and the county are all considering the state’s offer because it makes sense, and they already do much of the work anyway.

In a perfect world, local ownership makes sense. But locals better think hard and plan carefully.

History has shown that control can be pretty pricey.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.