COLUMBIA — South Carolina motorists will pay a little more at the pump starting Sunday, but the extra cost will continue historically high levels of spending on road work.
The state's gas taxes will rise by an additional 2 cents a gallon Sunday, to 20.75 cents, under the law legislators passed last year.
It's the second increment of the law's 12-cent hike over six years. Last July's initial 2-cent hike marked the state's first gas tax increase in 30 years.
South Carolina's gas tax remains among the lowest nationwide and is still well below neighboring states: Georgia's tax is 31.6 cents per gallon, and North Carolina's is 34.4 cents.
The state had the country's lowest average price at the pump as of Friday, according to AAA. Adding 2 cents a gallon would push South Carolina to second-lowest, behind Alabama.
Those extra pennies at the pump have contributed to a "record level of roadwork under way in South Carolina," state Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said.
The agency is actually ahead of schedule with its 10-year plan for the new money, she said.
"We've made excellent, excellent progress," she told her board in a presentation of first-year accomplishments. "We're in the process of rebuilding our road network."
When fully phased in, last year's law is projected to raise roughly $600 million annually for road construction. Combine that with laws passed in 2013 and 2016, which largely borrowed money for roads and, eventually, there will be $800 million extra available yearly for the next decade, Hall said.
The 10-year rebuilding plan includes replacing 465 bridges — eliminating all that are load-restricted — and spending $50 million annually on safety improvements along the deadliest rural stretches, such as rumble strips, guard rails and either widening shoulders or building them where none exist.
About 3,200 projects, contracted at $3 billion, are under way — tripling the agency's capabilities from a decade ago, Hall said.
That includes $1 billion worth of widening work being done along Interstate 85.
First-year progress also includes 187 miles of safety upgrades along rural roads — well above the goal of 100 miles a year — re-paving 2,200 miles of roadway, and rebuilding 51 bridges.
That number doesn't include the James B. Edwards Bridge over the Wando River, which DOT officials closed May 14 after finding a snapped cable, causing a traffic snarl for several weeks. That bridge wasn't part of the 10-year plan, and it's not expected to be added. The repair costs still aren't in, but officials hope federal money will cover them.
The nation's fourth-largest highway system, at 41,400 miles, includes more than 8,400 bridges.
The DOT board launched year two projects June 21 by approving $417 million worth of repaving on 600 miles.
But officials caution drivers to be patient. Even after the 10-year plan is completed, many roads will remain in bad shape.
With paving alone, bringing the entire system to good condition would cost $11 billion, said Leland Colvin, DOT's deputy secretary for engineering.
"It's not something we can turn around overnight," he said. "We will make significant progress over the next 10 years."
The money that recent laws will eventually provide is still far less than the $1.1 billion annually over 25 years that the DOT said is needed to bring its entire network to good condition.
Last year's law, approved over Gov. Henry McMaster's veto, raised more than gas taxes. Its $16 increase in annual vehicle registration fees and new biennial fees for hybrid and electric cars, of $60 and $120, respectively, took effect Jan. 1. New fees for out-of-state truckers will take effect in January 2019. College students, low-wage workers, manufacturers, and married, working couples will start benefiting from the law's tax breaks with their 2018 income tax returns.
McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the governor still believes the tax increases were unnecessary.
"The only good thing the bill did was give the governor the authority to remove commissioners that refuse to spend taxpayer dollars wisely," Symmes said, "and Gov. McMaster has told each of them that he will use that authority if they don’t strictly follow Secretary Hall’s 10-year plan.”