Senators focus on interstate work


COLUMBIA - With South Carolina's rapid growth during the past 20 years, a group of senators says it is vital that the state's interstate highways keep up.

The Special Interstate Subcommittee met Wednesday for the first time, getting an overview of more than $1 billion in interstate widening projects in the works, like expanding Interstate 85 near the North Carolina state line and Interstate 20 west of Columbia from four to six lanes.

State Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall threw around bigger numbers than that, saying the state has begun preliminary studies on the biggest road project ever undertaken here - a $1.6 billion untangling of the intersection of I-20, Interstate 26 and Interstate 126 in Columbia.

The DOT is tossing around an even bigger widening project on Interstate 526 in the next few decades, from North Charleston to Mount Pleasant, involving several high bridges. Hall can't say when it will start or how much it will cost because her engineers haven't started the details, but it has all the signs of topping the Columbia project.

The General Assembly's 2017 approval of a 12-cent gas tax increase over six years - passed over Gov. Henry McMaster's veto - and increases in other fees are helping accelerate the pace of work, Hall said.

In all, the DOT has $3.6 billion of road work going on right now in South Carolina. While $1.3 billion is going toward widening interstates, $1.1 billion is going toward repaving all types of roads in bad condition, $315 million to replacing substandard bridges and $117 million toward small projects like guardrails and paved shoulders to reduce South Carolina's highest in the nation rate of deaths on rural roads, Hall said.

"We've got everything stacked and ready for delivery. It's just pulling them through the pipeline," Hall said.

Democratic Sen. Nikki Setzler of West Columbia asked for the committee after yet another trip on I-26 between Charleston to Columbia slowed to a crawl amid truck traffic heading west and north from the ports in Charleston and Savannah, Georgia.

"Ride down 26 and all the sudden you stop, and you start thinking the way it will be 20 years from now - that's a nightmare," said Setzler, the longest-serving member in the state Senate.

Expanding all of I-26 is decades away but is on the radar. Hall said widening 14 miles east of where the current six-lane stretch ends south of Columbia is in the next wave of projects, along with expanding 8 miles of Interstate 95 after the highway enters the state from Georgia - a longtime choke point for travelers all along the East Coast as the road narrows to four lanes.

Hall said the DOT is using the additional money as wisely and creatively as it can. Her agency had only $1 billion to spend on roadwork just 11 years ago. But they are encountering other problems, like competing with large highway projects in other Southeastern states.

"There's a limited pool of larger contractors that are able to come in and work on these big projects," Hall said.

Other lawmakers asked Hall not just to concentrate on interstates. Lancaster County has grown by 50% since 2000, and many of those 30,000 new residents have spilled down U.S. 521 from Charlotte, North Carolina.

The road has stoplights, but it is over capacity too and needs help, said Republican Sen. Greg Gregory, who represents the area.

Setzler asked Hall to return to the next meeting with information about the DOT's bond debt and how much it could potentially borrow.

"Our needs are so great in this state. We can't wait until 2040, 2050 to deal with this," Setzler said. "We as a state have to determine how do we address catastrophic needs we have right now or we are going to be left behind by the rest of the Southeast?"