The first gas tax hike in decades will be a catalyst for South Carolina's priority interstate projects, including widening Interstate 526 and improving its intersection with Interstate 26, state Department of Transportation officials said.

Adding 12 cents to the gas tax in 2-cent yearly increments is expected to generate $800 million over the next decade. The first 2-cent gas tax hike took effect July 1.

Most of the new gas tax revenue, about $407 million, will be for resurfacing roads, while $116 million will go to interstate improvements. The $116 million will be leveraged to obtain more federal funds for the interstate work, including a fix for "malfunction junction" in Columbia where I-26, I-20 and I-126 meet, DOT officials said.

Phase one of the I-526 project includes widening the highway from Rivers Avenue to Paul Cantrell Boulevard and improving its intersections with I-26, Rivers Avenue, International Boulevard, Montague Avenue, Dorchester Road and Leeds Avenue.

The Rivers Avenue interchange has the most crashes, followed by the juncture of I-526 and I-26, according to DOT.

DOT is currently working through the federal environmental permitting process for I-526 phase one. A total of $750 million is scheduled for allocation to the project in 2020 when design and construction is scheduled to begin.

"It may cost more. We're still going through our alternatives analysis," said Joy Riley, program manager for the DOT Lowcountry Regional Production Group. "Over the next year, we'll start cost estimates for our alternative concepts." 

Under study is whether to widen I-526 from two lanes to four lanes in each direction. The original proposal called for three lanes in each direction. The best designs for the interchanges are also being evaluated. Alternatives for the highway will be presented in February at public meetings, she said.

The $800 million in revenue from new gas taxes and fees will also enable the creation of a rural roads safety program and provide a way to fund repairs to structurally deficient bridges.

Spending of gas tax money will be posted online in the next few weeks, said S.C. Comptroller Richard Eckstrom.

“The more sets of eyes viewing these expenditures, the better,” he said in a press release.

The roads bill containing the gas tax hike and Act 98 of 2013 have been key to the interstate projects, DOT said.

"Without the passage of those two acts the interstate widening program was certainly stalled out and we had no way to deliver our top-ranked project, 'malfunction junction' in Columbia, an estimated $1.5 billion project by itself," the agency said in a statement.

A DOT staff report says $67 million of the new gas tax money will be for bridges and $50 million for the rural road safety program.

The gas tax increase enables a 10-year plan for eliminating load-restricted bridges and tackling structurally deficient bridges. South Carolina is facing an $11 billion problem because some 80 percent of its roads need repairs and 750 bridges are structurally deficient.

South Carolina hadn't increased its 16.75 cents per gallon gas tax since 1987. With the 2-cent bump, the DOT expects to collect $149 million in the first year. The DOT commission has approved a plan to commit $99 million of that money to resurfacing and the rest to the rural road safety program.

The first beneficiaries of the new gas tax funds are roads in 27 counties where $26 million will be spent for resurfacing. Berkeley County gets resurfacing of 22 miles on 20 roads, which is the most followed by Kershaw and McCormick counties.

"The awarding of these contracts is the first step in launching our program to begin to turn around the poor condition of our road network," said Woody Williard, DOT commission chairman.

The DOT says the new gas tax revenue will provide for 1,000 miles of safety feature upgrades on rural roads, 465 replaced bridges and 140 miles of improved interstate.

Some 65 percent of the state's interstates and 23 percent of other major roads have surfaces that are in good condition, according to the DOT report.

South Carolina highways have the highest fatality rate in the country.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 843-937-5711.