Palmetto Sunrise: Roads debate returns, plan possible by Wednesday (copy)

This Mar. 11, 2016 photo shows the Williamson-Johnson Road at the Orangeburg-Aiken county line in Salley. Transportation officials say 46 percent of the pavement on South Carolina's state roads are in poor condition. File/AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins

Even as more road funding rolls in with the higher gas tax approved last year, the S.C. Department of Transportation is looking to shrink the number of roads the state is responsible for maintaining.

The department is launching a pilot program this year to give local governments the option to take over certain state roads in their communities. Each transfer would come with an advance payment from DOT to cover the road's maintenance costs for the next 40 years. 

About two dozen municipalities have submitted letters of intent to apply, according to Transportation Secretary Christy Hall. The cities of Charleston, North Charleston and Greenville, as well as Charleston County, are among them.

Local officials in some of those communities say the plus side of the program is that it would give them control over their repaving schedules, speed limits and improvement plans. Hall says it will help the state narrow its focus on improving larger highways and bridges.

But even with the offer of upfront maintenance money, some local officials question whether their governments are equipped to shoulder more of the burden of the state's aging road network in the long run.

South Carolina has the fourth largest state-owned road system, with DOT controlling 41,330 of 76,250 total roadway miles. About 16 percent are in poor condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. 

The state's crumbling roads and bridges led the Legislature last year to increase the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon over six years, generating about $600 million annually. It was the first state gas tax hike in 30 years.

The 10-year spending plan includes repaving and widening roads, rebuilding 465 bridges and making safety improvements along the deadliest rural stretches. But DOT leaders have said at least $1.1 billion would be needed annually to bring the whole road system up to good condition.

"We’re basically dealing with almost three decades of backlogs," Hall said.

Adam McConnell, executive project manager for North Charleston, said taking over some of their state-owned roads such as Spruill Avenue would give the city more flexibility with things like bike lanes and road designs. The state has rigid permitting standards that don't always match what the local community wants, he said.

"For us, it’s about being able to control our own destiny," he said. 

Charleston County already maintains some of the roads on the list it submitted to the state, such as a portion of Betsy Kerrison Parkway on Johns Island. The new program at least provides some funds to cover those costs, said Jim Armstrong, director of the county's transportation department.

County Councilman Teddie Pryor cast the sole "no" vote against the proposal. 

"Once we accept these roads and they give us whatever money that is, when the money runs out, that’s it. We’re going to be responsible for the roads for a lifetime," he said.

Other local officials around the state echoed those concerns.

Richland County Council voted against the proposal to apply for the program on July 24. Councilman Norman Jackson said the state has more funding for road maintenance than cities and counties.

"We have to find additional funding while they’re collecting the gasoline tax," he said.

Hall said that's not exactly true, because a portion of the gas tax revenue does go to county-run transportation committees.

"I would argue that these county-based organizations are receiving increased funding as part of the gas tax increase," she said. 

She emphasized that the program is voluntary and that the state will only transfer roads to the interested governments if both parties agree on the price.

"This is not meant to be a trap for local governments," she said. "We feel like we’re trying to be responsive to local governments’ request to have more authority over the roads within their communities."

City Councilman Mike Seekings, chairman of the Traffic and Transportation Committee, voted in favor of participating in the program. The city applied to take over portions of 10 roads, including St. Philip Street and Rutledge Avenue downtown and Cane Slash Road on Johns Island. 

Seekings said he still has his doubts about the concept. 

"Roads are expensive. They’re expensive to build. They’re expensive to maintain. They’re expensive to improve," he said. "I go into this cautiously pessimistic, but willing to learn through the pilot program whether it will work."

The initial budget for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2019, is $10 million, a relatively small pool. The maintenance fee the state would pay would be more than $560,000 per mile of a two-lane road in good condition, and much more for roads that are larger and in poorer conditions.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.