Carolina's road history mirrors current problems
By Andrew Martin
Lawmakers seem poised to end a stalemate and appropriate millions to repair South Carolina’s deteriorating road system. But the ongoing debate, worsened by the 2008 Great Recession, reflects the history that accompanied the building and maintenance of the state’s massive interstate and state road system.
From colony to country
Interesting fact: Much of South Carolina’s original road system was comprised of dirt roads, before being upgraded to sand-clay roads.
Roads were secondary to water transportation in South Carolina until after the War of 1812. After the war, expansion of cotton production added to the demand for easy and efficient transportation to Charleston, according to The South Carolina Encyclopedia, edited by retired University of South Carolina history professor Walter Edgar.
A 110-mile State Road was commissioned by the General Assembly in 1818 so that horses and wagons could travel from Columbia to Charleston. The road turned out to be a failure due to high creation costs and low income from tolls. Interstate 26 would ultimately be created along the original route of the State Road.
The first traffic regulations were created in 1825 by the General Assembly. Road maintenance and construction was left up to local road commissioners. Between 1891 and 1911, citizens clamored for better roads in what would be called the era of “good roads” movement. Through federal and local supervision, 17 South Carolina road projects were completed by 1910, according to the encyclopedia.
The dependence on cars after 1908 showed the failure of the old earth roads. Automobiles needed stronger surfaces that wouldn’t be torn apart by continuous use or weather.
The roads more traveled
Interesting fact: Henry Ford’s invention, the Model T, changed the way South Carolinians – and their fellow Americans - thought about travel and commerce.
The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 appropriated $75 million to improve post roads, according to the History Channel. In an effort to access federal highway money, the General Assembly created the State Highway Commission in 1917.
Federal highways and the first gasoline tax were introduced in 1922. But just as in today’s legislative climate, Upstate and Lowcountry legislators often clashed. Legislators from the Lowcountry wanted to borrow federal money to build roads, but upcountry legislators opposed the idea as they had already built many of their roads using local money.
The 1929 Bond Bill replaced the older “pay-as-you-go” act in favor of funding construction of the state highway system by issuing bonds. License tags and gas taxes would be used to repay the bonds. The Highway Department was also created and was financially independent from the General Assembly.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 authorized the construction of a 40,000-mile “National System of Interstate Highways,” according to the History Channel. However, absent from the act was how the roads would be paid for.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal-Aid Highway Act was passed in June 1956. The act called for 41,000 miles of interstate construction costing $25 billion, with the federal government paying 90 percent.
Interstate 85 was the first interstate completed in South Carolina in 1964.
“Highways or Dieways”
Interesting fact: South Carolina highway officials initiated a number of campaigns to prevent highway deaths, including “Sober or Slammer” to remind drivers not to drink and drive.
The leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 44 was automobile and motor vehicle accidents, with 49,000 Americans dying in 1965, according to Politico.
“In this century, more than 1,500,000 of our fellow citizens have died on our streets and highways; nearly three times as many Americans as we have lost in all our wars,” then-President Lyndon B. Johnson reported that year.
President Johnson signed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act in 1966, according to the History channel. The two bills put the responsibility of creating and enforcing safety standards for both cars and roads in the hands of the federal government.
All roads lead home
Interesting fact: South Carolina has the fourth largest state-maintained road system in the country, totaling approximately 41,500 miles, according to the South Carolina Department of Transportation.
In 1981 national efforts for a gas tax increase created concerns about the independence of highway funding, the building of new roads versus maintaining current roads and the need to match federal appropriations.
Then South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley complained that the highway department has a history of building new roads “when it is clear that revenues are not sufficient to maintain our present system.”
South Carolina developed its interstate highway system more quickly that most other states. The state currently has one of the largest state highway systems in the nation, according to the encyclopedia.
But this represents a problem in both aspects. South Carolina has built up a highway system so large and continues to build new roads despite the crumbling roads and decaying bridges throughout the state.
Even with passage of another gas tax in 1989 and the creation of the State Infrastructure Bank to provide a tool to build large projects like the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston, it was difficult for the state to keep up with maintenance and repairs.
“The problem is that gas taxes are a declining source of revenues as cars have gotten more efficient, and the state has not dedicated substantial new resources to an expanding road system,” Former Gov. Jim Hodges, and last elected Democratic governor, said this week. “This has created the problem we currently face- an ever growing deficit in the amount needed to cover maintenance and new construction needs for a growing state.”
Nothing new has been down in the state in twenty years while the gas tax continues to a declining source of revenue. The state’s population and number of roads that need to be maintained continues to increase while South Carolina’s road funding dwindles. People were more concerned with other issues, such as education.
Post 2000, any sense of talk in the State House about the road crisis died down. The talk shifted to tolling the interstates and using money to maintain South Carolina’s federal highways. Several big road projects were funded in the 1990s “but that’s been almost two decades, and the needs have accumulated,” Hodges said.
“Short term proposals to use surplus General Fund revenues are a Band-Aid- we need to consider some combination of tolls roads or gas taxes,” Hodges said.