No Path To Fix Roads Despite High Traffic Fatalities

Mar 9, 2017

Sandra Rabon unfolds a large piece of white paper on the floor of her home in North Charleston.

It is her son Tripp's timeline for his life. Rabon reads aloud from the class project.

"Here he has graduating from Clemson 2021 and starting his own business in 2022," she said. "Then sell company or give to son, go fishing with the grandkids and finally die in a rocking chair in June 2098."

But Tripp never even made it to high school graduation. He died in a car accident in December 2015. He and a few friends were driving to go duck hunting. It was early and dark outside and a part the road was flooded. The car flipped and hit a tree. Tripp died from internal injuries.  

"It wasn’t their fault and it was preventable." Rabon said. "To have to live with that for the rest of our live is so, so sad."

Last year 975 people died on South Carolina highways. The state has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the nation. There are many factors in those accidents, including road conditions.

There is a saying in South Carolina, you don’t need a sign to know you’re in the state, you’ll know you’ve crossed the border based on how bad the roads are. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Palmetto state’s transportation network.

President of B.W. Mitchum trucking company in Charleston Ronnie Cooper said the design of the roads is part of the problem.  

"Many of our roads to have little room for error. One bad move, one mistake, one moment of inattention can be deadly."

Research from TRIP, a national transportation research group backs up that claim. Director of Policy and Research Rocky Morett says roadways are safest when they account for driver mistakes. Moretti points to an example in Texas.

He said several years ago the state made minor adjustments on a stretch of rural road like adding guard rails and rumble strips.

“On those 1,000 miles of roadways what they are seeing annually is 40 fewer traffic fatalities," Morretti said. "So in a decade there will be 400 fewer fatalities in Texas because of one rural road program."

Similar types of improvements, like widening roads and fixing pavements, are just some of what the transportation department wants to do in South Carolina. But Christy Hall, who leads the department said she needs more money. According to Hall, for year’s day to day maintenance and design updates got pushed to the side. Now she said it’s going to be much more expensive to fix.

"Because the system has decayed as much as it has and we are basically having to reconstruct the majority of the roads," Hall said. "The cost are 10 times higher than if he had done it when road first needed repair."

In a presentation Hall gave to the legislature, she said nearly 80 percent of the system that extends 41,000 miles is now in need of improvements. Lawmakers are suggesting the money come from a higher gas tax. The last time it was raised in South Carolina was 30 years ago.

Daniel Brennan is skeptical more money is the silver bullet. He is with the South Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a non-profit political advocacy group. Before the state throws more money at the transportation department Brennan wants to see reform. He said the department is different from a typical cabinet agency and the secretary has to answer to a commission and the governor.   

"When you have multiple bosses you won’t be able to make decisions you want to make," Brennan said.

Brennan argues in this set up, the secretary of the transportation doesn’t have enough authority. He also said representatives on the commission steer money disproportionately back to their districts and not the roads in most dire need.    

Governor Henry McMaster has also said increasing taxes would be a last resort and is not the answer. He wants all the money collected from the current gas tax to go to fix the roads. McMaster said currently not all the money collected from that tax goes towards those repairs. 

At this point it’s unclear what that will mean for a bill that would raise the gas tax. It passed the house last week with a large majority.