Don't falter on state road fix

A large pothole in downtown Charleston. (Grace Beahm/File)

The expectation that the Legislature would finally advance the long overdue process of road improvements - and more funding - has been dampened by House Speaker Jay Lucas' conclusion that it can't happen this year. In a speech Monday to a Republican group in Greenville, Rep. Lucas cited likely difficulties in gaining consensus for a solution this session.

He also complained that legislators are having difficulty getting reliable information from the state Department of Transportation.

If that's the case, they should ask the governor to intervene. The secretary of transportation is a member of the governor's Cabinet and should be able to satisfy lawmakers' demands for information.

And if Rep. Lucas and his colleagues aren't ready to proceed with an overarching solution for road funding and construction, they should be willing at least to look at what can be done on part of the problem. The Hartsville Republican's concerns for road maintenance needs could provide a starting point for the Legislature this year.

The maintenance need is acute and will only get worse without more attention.

As Rep. Lucas noted, in comments quoted by SC Biz News, "If you take a road and it is in fair shape and you need to preserve it, we can do that for $11,000. You can take a road that has gotten in poor shape and you need to rehab it you are talking $160,000 a mile. Take a road that absolutely has to be replaced - like most in my district - and you are talking $250,000 a mile."

In order to stretch its dollars, the cash-starved DOT often has focused on road projects that are eligible for federal highway assistance.

But Rep. Lucas noted that much of the road mileage in the state system doesn't qualify for federal dollars.

"If you live on one of those roads in South Carolina you will probably end up getting your road paved once every 135 years," he said. "We are not going to be able to get to it."

Any comprehensive proposal for state highway improvements must involve a plan that will enable the state "to get to it."

And that means paying for it. Given the sad state of highway funding in South Carolina, any meaningful plan for improvement will have to be accompanied by a program for additional funding - an increase in the state gas tax.

Many legislators and highway commissioners prefer to see large-scale highway projects built - even if they aren't always demonstrable priorities.

Accelerating repairs and maintenance where most needed is a logical alternative - and a rational point from which the Legislature should begin.

The fact that maintenance needs are evident throughout the state should be a selling point for legislative support.

With an estimated funding shortfall of $40 billion over the next 30 years, a broad solution for state highway improvements is daunting, to say the least.

But the Legislature should be able to advance some part of a comprehensive highway plan in the coming session.

Putting more resources toward overdue maintenance of the existing system - where the work is most needed - is a good place to start.