“The state’s crumbling road system” — that phrase and its variants seem to be uttered almost nonstop in South Carolina as the General Assembly mulls the latest gas-tax increase legislation.
S.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall has been outspoken, saying state roads are in a crisis. Recently, she went further, telling the Senate Finance Committee that 54 percent of the roads are in such awful condition that they must be ripped up and rebuilt — at a cost of $8 billion.
SCDOT had a $1.63 billion budget for the last fiscal year, of which it says a little over half, $848 million, is already spent on maintenance and preservation of roads. To keep up with the problem Hall testified about, the agency says it will need to spend an additional $1 billion a year.
So we asked how SCDOT knows all this.
Hall’s office pointed us to two documents: the Legislative Audit Council’s 2016 review of SCDOT, which describes some of the way the DOT measures road quality, and SCDOT’s 2016 State of the Pavement Report, which presents the results. If this were all you knew, you might reasonably think your hair was on fire.
In 2014, for example, SCDOT found that of 9,471 miles of primary roads in the state system, exactly 54 percent were in poor condition according to its Pavement Quality Index, based on visual identification. That same year, it found that of 20,657 miles of secondary roads, the amount in poor condition was the same: 54 percent. And by poor, the agency apparently means these roads are so bad they can’t be reasonably repaired or resurfaced.
This isn’t the only data that the state collects on the condition of some of its roads, however. It also measures road conditions differently, for a different but overlapping set of state roads, which it, like all the other states, reports to the Federal Highway Administration.
David Hartgen works with that Highway Administration data. An emeritus professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Hartgen has been a transportation policy analyst for the state of New York, and for the Highway Administration, and the principal investigator on six federal studies of traffic. He’s an author of numerous studies on roads conditions, including Are Highways Crumbling? and The Reason Foundation’s Annual Highway Report.
So we asked him, in looking at the numbers that SCDOT provides to the Highway Administration, are South Carolina’s roads in especially bad shape?
“I wouldn’t say that,” Hartgen said, speaking by phone from his office in Charlotte. “And I don’t think the data shows that.”
He added, “You can’t decide what to do about a road by just looking at its roughness.”
Here is some of what the Highway Administration data show over time, in categories Hartgen says are key performance indicators:
• In percent of rural interstates in poor condition, South Carolina rated 7.4 in 1989, 0.9 in 1999, and 0.2 in 2008, ranking 15th among all states for change in percent poor.
In 2013, that figure had further declined, to 0.08 percent.
In 2015, it ticked up to 0.39.
(From 1989 to 2008, the U.S. average went from 6.6 percent poor, to 2.35 percent, to 1.93. In 2015, it was 1.85 percent.)
There is some recent worsening here, but the data SCDOT collects and sends to the Highway Administration show that the state’s rural interstates, comprising about 500 miles of roadways, over time have been vastly improved (and keep in mind, for example, that 0.39 percent here represents about two miles of roads).
• In percent of urban interstates in poor condition, South Carolina rated 3.4 in 1989, 3.2 in 1999, and 0.8 in 2008, ranking 17th among states for change in percent poor.
In 2013, that figure had risen slightly, to 0.84 percent.
In 2015, it had risen to 2.41 percent — which is about five miles of roads, out of 304 miles.
(From 1989 to 2008, the U.S. average went from 6.55 percent poor, to 7.21 percent, to 5.37. In 2015, it was 5.02 percent.)
• In percent of rural principal arterial roads in poor condition, South Carolina rated 1.5 in 1989, 0.3 in 1999, and 0.2 in 2008, ranking 22nd among states for change in percent poor.
In 2013, that figure had risen slightly, to 0.24 percent.
In 2015, it had risen to 1 percent — which is about 15 miles of roads, out of 1,546 miles.
(From 1989 to 2008, the U.S. average went from 2.58 percent poor, to 0.85 percent, to 0.53. In 2015, it was 1.35 percent.)
• In percent of urban interstates congested, South Carolina rated 71.8 in 1989, 47.7 in 1999, and 50 in 2008, ranking 5th-most reduced among states.
(In that time, the U.S. average went from 52.6 percent, to 40.1, to 48.6.)
Over the period studied in “Are Highways Crumbling?,” the authors conclude that “the overall condition of the state-owned highway system appears to be improving and has possibly never been in better shape. In short, the U.S. highway infrastructure is not ‘crumbling.'”
So why does everyone believe the roads are crumbling?
Apart from some crumbling of roads, one explanation is that most people experience road conditions on a daily commute. They typically begin and end on smaller and locally maintained streets at either end, where problems are more likely to occur or be evident, such as potholes and bumps.
The Highway Administration shows that urban minor arterial roads in South Carolina jumped from 1.6 percent poor in 2011 to 19.7 percent poor in 2015. That’s quite a leap. Some smaller roads seem to be getting worse faster.
“All sections of road are deteriorating all the time,” Hartgen says, which is simply in the nature of things that are used. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that entire roads systems are in poor condition.
Roads may be rated in “fair” rather than “good” condition, but, says Hartgen, “How good should the system be? That’s a question that doesn’t get asked…
“South Carolina is saying, ‘We need a billion and a half dollars annually to fix this problem’ — and that just isn’t true.”
Hall, who leads the agency responsible for assessing, maintaining, and building state roads, is looking at data that SCDOT collects and saying one thing, in essence, and Hartgen, a highly qualified analyst, is looking at data that agency collects and saying another. They can’t both be right.
In the end, the answer may indeed be anecdotal: Are you driving on roads where you encounter the same few annoying bumps and potholes every day, in need of repair, or are you driving on roads that have completely failed?
Robert Meyerowitz is managing editor of The Nerve, an investigative website of the South Carolina Policy Council, a Columbia-based nonprofit research organization that describes its mission as “promoting free market policies and transparency” in South Carolina local and state government. thenerve.org
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