North Charleston spends about $2 million per year to mow the grass along a few dozen miles of state-owned roads. Otherwise, the grass wouldn’t get cut — at least not frequently enough to please motorists upset by overgrowth.
That’s frustrating for the taxpayers of North Charleston.
And they are hardly alone. DOT officials readily admit that most municipalities in South Carolina spend some of their own money to keep the grass and weeds along state roads in check.
“I don’t know of any cities that don’t cut grass on state highways,” said DOT spokesman James Law in a recent interview with Post and Courier reporter Rickey Ciapha Dennis Jr.
It’s a simple matter of math. Assuming that North Charleston is getting a good deal on its grass-cutting contracts, a rough estimate suggests it would cost the state DOT as much as 80 percent of its annual budget to more frequently mow alongside the incredible 41,000 miles of roads for which it is responsible.
Obviously, that would not be a sensible use of state transportation funds.
But local government budgets are tight. Some cities can’t easily afford multimillion-dollar grass cutting programs, at least not on roads they didn’t expect to have to maintain. All could easily find other uses for that money.
North Charleston officials tired of coughing up $2 million per year for work the state DOT should be doing have a few options.
The simplest, of course, would be to just let the grass grow and wait for DOT to cut it — eventually. That’s not just an aesthetically bad choice, however. It also poses problems for public safety.
Tall grass along the roadside can obscure obstacles that drivers might need to be aware of when pulling over or when recovering from accidentally driving off the road. It’s also a challenge for pedestrians in places without sidewalks.
A better option would be to plant ground-hugging native plant species that don’t require so much maintenance in the first place.
As anyone with a lawn is well aware, grass can be a particularly finicky plant to keep healthy. It requires constant and intensive care. That’s part of the reason why well-manicured lawns became a status symbol in the first place.
Highway grass is typically easier to take care of. But it can still requires regular herbicide application and, of course, regular mowing. Lower-maintenance species like wildflowers could cut down on the cost of care and beautify roadways at the same time.
That’s not a new idea. States, including South Carolina, have experimented with different ground-covering plants for decades both out of aesthetic concerns and in efforts to save money.
Delaware transportation officials found that native plants only needed to be mowed once a year, cutting the maintenance budget per acre by more than 80 percent, for example. North Charleston mows state-owned roads a whopping 14 times per year.
There’s disappointingly little state money available for replanting efforts in South Carolina. But it might be worth the investment at the local level.
North Charleston and other cities that have taken over for DOT should consider alternatives to grass along the roads they already maintain. It might save a good bit of money in the long term. It might look nicer too.