Despite failure of SC road plan, York, Chester, Lancaster see big funding bonus

Months of debate at the Statehouse this year focused on how South Carolina can pay to fix its crumbling roads and infrastructure, but in the end a comprehensive road maintenance plan foundered because of opposition to increasing the state’s gas tax.

That doesn’t mean drivers won’t see improvements on their daily commutes sometime soon. The state budget passed at the end of June includes an additional $216 million in one-time money for road maintenance. Locally, that means:

▪ $7.2 million in York County

▪ $3.9 million in Lancaster County

▪ $2.9 million in Chester County

Even without the larger roads plan that took up so much attention in Columbia this year, those numbers are still significant increases over what county governments normally receive from the state each year in what are known as “C fund allocations.” In York County’s case, it’s more than three times the county’s usual allotment. In Lancaster County, it’s almost four times what would normally be spent.

“This is the most money we’ve ever received in funding other than C funds,” said Ryan Blancke, York County’s transportation manager. “Statewide, it’s the most money we’ve ever seen.”

The money does come with one caveat – it can only be spent on roads maintained by the state Department of Transportation, not county- or city-maintained roads. But those roads represent 60 to 70 percent of all road miles in local counties, which means drivers are likely to notice more road crews at work in coming months than they normally might.

The road money will be doled out by each county’s designated transportation committee, which is set up differently depending on where you live.

York and Chester county councils act as the transportation committees in their counties, but in Lancaster County the committee is made up of volunteers appointed by the county’s legislative delegation.

When and where the extra road dollars will be spent depends on how committee members vote, but road priority lists – spelling out what roads are most in need of repair – are maintained both by local DOT offices and county engineering and public works departments.

Drivers are not shy about letting local officials know what roads they most want to see repaired.

“We get a lot of calls, whether it’s a county-maintained road or not,” said Jeff Catoe, Lancaster County’s public works director.

The state money can’t be used for new road construction, unlike York County’s Pennies for Progress program, which is financed by a 1-cent local sales tax. Instead, the extra state money must go toward roads’ maintenance needs, such as filling pot holes or resurfacing.

In York County, Springdale Road is a likely candidate to see improvements, which could make rides to Rock Hill High School a little easier. DOT is already doing maintenance work nearby on Fire Tower Road.

Local officials aren’t sure when more work there could begin.

“We don’t know yet if we’ll get the money all at one time, or monthly, or half now, half later,” Blancke said.

Once the roads for repair are identified, Catoe said, crews will begin work “as soon as possible,” likely by this fall.

“We want to get on them pretty quick,” he said, “but we won’t bid them all right away.”

Despite the new money budgeted for roads this year, state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, hopes to see the larger road plan he helped shepherd through the House this year make its way through the Senate when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“I support getting this money out in a one-time manner... but it’s not adequate,” Simrill said. “We left $500 million on the table in addition to this by not passing the roads plan.”

Because the General Assembly is in the middle of a two-year session, the plan House members approved by an 87-20 vote this spring could still be taken up by the Senate in 2016.

“Sen. (Hugh) Leatherman said he was always looking at it as a two-year process,” Simrill said of the Senate president pro tem, “even if the House didn’t see it that way.”

As long as money is available, road work could continue into the 2017 fiscal year. But contractors won’t see a lack of activity before then.

“I’m not worried that we’re going to run out of roads before we run out of money,” Lancaster County Manager Steve Willis said.

“We already have more contractors booked from last year,” Blancke said of York County. “Next summer’s paving season is going to be crazy.”

Bristow Marchant •  803-329-4062