BLACKSBURG, South Carolina — Leon Byars has driven on South Carolina's slowly crumbling roads and bridges for decades, but he didn't realize how bad things were getting until last month. Road crews suddenly closed a small bridge about a quarter-mile from his Cherokee County home.
Years of weathering and pounding traffic caused the bridge's deck to crumble. Up went the orange and white striped road closed signs, along with mounds of sand. Suddenly, Byars faces a four-mile detour for months or even years to get to the Wal-Mart where he likes to shop and the restaurants where he likes to eat with his wife.
South Carolina faces problems, large and small, on its roads. For every $500 million project currently on hold, like untangling the Interstate 20 and Interstate 26 interchange in Columbia, there are bridges like the one near Byars' house that are falling apart and hundreds of other pothole-filled roads and bridges whose foundations and decks are rated poor. The state Department of Transportation estimates it will need $29 billion in the next 20 years to get them back to good condition.
The money woes at the DOT have several roots. South Carolina maintains over 40,000 miles of roads — the fourth biggest system in the nation, even though it is the 40th largest state in area and 24th in population. The state's gas tax is just under 17 cents a gallon, one of the lowest in the nation and unchanged since 1987 even though vehicles burn a lot less gas per mile and the state's population has grown by more than a million people. That gas tax provides nearly all the state money that goes to DOT.
Lawmakers have promised this year to make road funding a priority. A showdown may be coming in the Senate, which is considering a bill to get more money to the DOT. After wrestling with the proposal for two weeks, a subcommittee decided to borrow $1.3 billion. The bill also would tie the gas tax to inflation, meaning the tax would start going up, perhaps by several cents by the end of the decade. Supporters carefully call it raising the "motor fuel user fee."
"It's like I tell my patients," said Republican Sen. Raymond Cleary, a dentist from Murrells Inlet. "You can either pay and fix it now, or wait and pay a lot more down the road."
But the bill from Cleary's subcommittee may be a tough sell in a state where "tax increase" is a naughty phrase. The House has already passed a bill that would send about $100 million collected on sales tax for vehicle purchases and move it from the general fund to road work. But House members rejected a move to increase the gas tax.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell is waiting to see what the Senate produces.
"Infrastructure is an incredibly important issue that needs to be dealt with. I'd be happy to see them send any bill over to us that allows us to continue the conversation and try to get funding in place. My preference is it be a current stream of funding like the sales tax on cars," said Harrell, R-Charleston.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley supported shifting extra revenue to road work as the economy expands. She included that $100 million idea in her budget proposal. She also has said she will reject any plan that raises taxes.
"Instead of leveraging South Carolina's credit rating, or raising the gas tax, let's prioritize our spending and pay for infrastructure this year," Haley's spokesman Rob Godfrey said.
Standing in the yard of the Blacksburg home where he has lived for nearly four decades, Byars is at least willing to think about paying more in gas taxes. What stops him from giving full support is a common complaint about how road money is divvied up in South Carolina.
"I don't want to pay more so they can build more bridges and roads in Charleston and Myrtle Beach," Byers said.
Those bigger projects often get plenty of federal money. But the state must put up some cash of its own. And it also sets priorities. Interstate 85 has three lanes each way for 60 miles in South Carolina, from Anderson to north of Spartanburg. But it goes back down to two lanes right before entering Cherokee County. Average daily traffic is higher there than some other three-lane stretches in the state. But a plan to widen I-85, estimated at around $500 million six years ago, was shelved.
"My folks don't want any more of their taxes being spent on the coast," said Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, a Republican whose district covers all of Cherokee County.
Peeler's point is reinforced by state map showing more than 400 bridges restricted from use by heavy trucks. It shows most of them are north of I-20. The DOT district that includes the bridge near Byars' house covers seven counties. More than 100 load-restricted bridges are in that district.
District Maintenance Engineer Todd Cook said the seven counties get enough money to fix about six bridges a year. Engineers have no idea how long it will take to reopen the bridge by Byars' house because they haven't determined whether they can fix it or need to demolish it and start over. Whatever happens will cost at least $300,000, Cook said.
So Byars and the 500 or so other drivers who cross the bridge each day will have to keep driving at least four miles out their way.
"I'm tempted to start heading up and down the road and take up a collection so we can fix that bridge ourselves," Byars said.
Associated Press writer Seanna Adcox contributed to this report.