COLUMBIA, South Carolina — An influx of federal money to repair hundreds of roads and bridges damaged by last month's historic flooding will do little to improve South Carolina's dilapidated highway system.
That's because the federal government's emergency money can be used only to make roads safely passable again, said state Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall.
"If the roads were bad before, they're bad now. This is not a betterment program," Hall told the House budget-writing committee Thursday. "If it's safe and can be returned to service, that's what we're doing."
Repairs won't make the road like new, she added: "It's going to look like a patchwork."
One month after the catastrophic storm, 54 roads and 29 bridges remain closed statewide, most of them in Richland, Lexington and Clarendon counties. That's down from an Oct. 5 peak of 541 closures, according to the DOT.
By Thanksgiving, the number of total closures should be below 60.
How much the repairs will ultimately cost the state is not yet known. Hall told legislators she hopes to have figures by Thanksgiving, after determining how projects match up with federal aid.
The DOT will get reimbursed for much of the work through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Highway Administration's emergency relief program. However, the state's still responsible for up to 25 percent of the costs, depending on the type of repair and how quickly it's done. Some projects aren't eligible for federal aid at all.
Some legislators were hoping the federal aid could help the state modernize portions of the state's long-crumbling infrastructure. Even before the waters rose, less than 20 percent of the state's 40,560 non-interstate highway miles were deemed in "good" shape. According to some estimates, the DOT needs an additional $500 million a year for decades just to get roads to fair condition.
But Hall made clear the damage must be directly related to the disaster to qualify for aid. And, with few exceptions, the federal government won't reimburse for improvements.
"It really hasn't done anything to our road problem in South Carolina other than make it worse," said House Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson. "We're talking about repairs — getting it back to where it was before" and spending a lot of money to do so.
Hall said the exception is for a "handful" of bridges destroyed beyond repair. Their replacements can be built to current standards.
Generally, however, "if a bridge was substandard before, it will still be substandard after the repairs," she said.
Of the 200 bridges closed in the storm's wake, 43 were among the roughly 2,000 bridges statewide rated substandard before the historic rainfall, she said.
"Certainly the reimbursements are a help to South Carolina for the losses. It does not in any way change what the true needs are of our infrastructure system," said Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, who led the panel that crafted a road-funding plan that passed the House last April. It would have generated an additional $400 million yearly for roadwork, largely by increasing taxes on fuel and vehicle sales taxes.
"That infrastructure bill was important then and is even more important now," Simrill said.
A Senate bill would raise roughly $800 million annually for roadwork. But opponents of raising the gas tax blocked a vote before the legislative session ended in June. That bill will be back up for debate when the Legislature returns in June.