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  • Writer's pictureDavid M. Rubin


One doesn't have to be a civil engineer to know how dangerous and aggravating South Carolina roads are. Rough pavement, potholes, poor lighting, inadequate signage, debris, narrow lanes, deteriorating bridges---you name it. The result is that South Carolina roads, as measured in fatalities, are the most dangerous in the U.S.

This catastrophe has been years in the making. The villains are many. One is the Republican State Legislature, uninterested in spending money on the common good, such as roads. The others are the State Department of Transportation and the Commission that oversees it. They have been unwilling or unable to address chronic infrastructure problems.

These failures should be of particular importance to voters in Dorchester County's State Assembly District 97. The Republican candidate who will face Democrat ReZsaun Lewis for the vacant seat is Robert D. "Robby" Robbins.

Robbins, a lawyer by training and a former prosecutor, was appointed to the State Transportation Commission in 2016. He served as vice-chair in 2018 and chair in 2019. The Commission is the administrative and governing authority over the state DOT.

In short, the bad roads buck stops with him, his fellow commissioners, and the Republican State Legislature.

Robbins will be touting his public service with the Commission as a reason to elect him to the Assembly. That "service," however, should be held against him by voters, not for him. He owns this mess. Let's see just how messy it is.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) prepared a 2021 Report Card grading South Carolina's infrastructure. Roads received a D grade, meaning "poor and at risk." Bridges received a C grade, meaning "mediocre, requires attention."

The ASCE rated interstate roads as good, but 50 percent of the primary and secondary roads were poor. Another 20 percent were judged to be in fair condition.

The fatality rate on South Carolina roads is 1.73 persons for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled. As noted, that ranks highest in the nation. South Carolina is the most dangerous state in which to drive, in large part because of the condition of its roads.

Robbins will point to a ten-year plan (now in its fifth year) to address road and bridge problems. It was put in place following the passage of Act 40 in 2017 modestly raised the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon, spread over six years. This left South Carolina's gas tax rate at only two-thirds the national average, with thousands of miles of historically neglected roads to repair.

The ASCE estimates that despite the tax increase and the ten-year plan, the state will suffer a $43 billion infrastructure funding gap over the next 20 years. The future of our roads is no better than the past.

In 2019 South Carolina was spending only $4,255 per lane mile for maintenance, which was third-worst in the United States. The national average was $14,570 per lane mile. Neighboring Georgia spends three times what South Carolina spends.

In short, Robbins's Commission, in league with the Republican State Legislature, has chosen a band-aid approach to a problem needing surgery. But surgery requires sacrificing for the common good, and South Carolina Republicans have never met a common good they embraced if it required higher taxes. Achieving even the two cents a year increase in the gas tax was a hard sell to this bunch.

South Carolina's roads are so bad that, as most drivers know, the State routinely pays to repair windshield cracks caused by debris on its roads. In 2021, according to Pete Poore of the DOT, 1800 drivers made claims, 1100 were paid, 400 were denied, and the rest were unresolved.

But it's not just cracked windshields that lead to legal claims by South Carolina drivers.

On the website of the South Carolina Comptroller General is a report on how many claims against the State were paid for damage caused by the State's negligence in many areas, including bad roads. These claims are paid by the State's Insurance Reserve Fund (IRF). For the final three months of 2021, the IRF listed, in 81 pages of fine print, the details of 111 claims filed because of road damage.

In this three-month period, the state paid out $2,054,720 for losses and another $983,219 for expenses, for a total of $3,037,939. Most of the settlements were for damage caused by potholes, road defects, and lack of maintenance. But some were for problems with signage, street design, or rocks and debris on the road.

If this was a typical quarter, the state paid out for the full year more than $12 million in damages to settle suits stemming just from negligence in maintaining the roads. That's $12 million that could have been spent on road and bridge repair. (Republicans like to claim they are worried about unnecessary state expenditures that drive up costs. I wonder how many have ever looked at these IRF reports.)

Only the tort lawyers and car repair businesses profit from this sad situation. They must have a powerful lobby in Columbia working to keep the roads a wreck.

Robbins won't want to talk about his role as a steward of a broken highway system, one that is the most dangerous in the nation. But as he campaigns, he must be forced to address it.

For starters, perhaps the Lewis campaign should distribute bumper stickers and put up lawn signs reading, "Bad Roads Robby."

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