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I-5 bridge collapse a warning for S.C.

Posted: May 26, 2013 2:47 p.m.
Updated: May 27, 2013 5:00 a.m.

I didn’t get a lot of sleep Thursday night and not because I wasn’t feeling well or had a lot of noise to keep me awake. In fact, I actually fell asleep in an office-type chair in front of my computer trying to watch online, live video from a Seattle, Wash., TV station covering the partial collapse of an I-5 bridge over the Skagit River.

According to KING 5 News (an NBC affiliate), the collapse may have been triggered by an oversized truck hitting a span on the bridge. At least that’s what officials were saying at the time. King 5 also reported that while the bridge was not classified as “structurally deficient,” the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHA) listed it as “functionally obsolete” on a database. “Functionally obsolete” is “a category meaning that the design is outdated, such as having narrow shoulders and low clearance underneath,” the station reported.

It also said the bridge was built in 1955 and has a “sufficiency rating” of 57.4 out of 100. I think by most anyone’s standards, that bridge should have been replaced years ago.

The same can be said about many bridges in South Carolina, not to mention upgrading many of our state’s roads. A lot of the S.C. Senate’s debate on the state’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget has focused on road construction funding. Luckily, the state senators voted Thursday to spend as much as $500 million to repair the state’s roads and bridges. Let me stress the word repair.

The bill would, if the House approves it and the governor signs it, authorize $50 million in funds each year to the state’s infrastructure bank. The bank would then leverage that in to $500 million worth of borrowed money to begin repairs.

Looking at the Senate’s journal for Thursday, I found the bill’s introductory text. It’s very specific: the transferred funds are to be used “solely to finance bridge replacement, rehabilitation projects, and expansions and improvements to existing mainline interstates.”

I’m a little concerned about the word “expansions” being thrown in there in terms of interstates. Looks like someone’s still trying to keep the proposed I-73 project in the loop, but we’ll see. What I’m happy about is the bridge replacement and rehabilitation to existing roads.

When the S.C. Department of Transportation released its “State of the SCDOT” report in January, it stated that 69 percent of the state’s interstate system was in good condition. Another 23 percent was listed as fair; the remaining 8 percent poor.

That’s actually not bad, considering how much traffic travels just on I-20 alone, much less other interstates such as I-26 and I-77.

However, in that same report, 47 percent -- nearly half -- of U.S. and S.C. routes (think highways 1 and 34, as examples) were in poor condition with another 40 percent listed as fair. That’s 87 percent of our roads that are either in fair or poor condition.

Secondary roads -- think York Street, Lockhart Road, Smyrna Road -- are in even worse shape. In South Carolina, 53 percent of secondary roads were in poor condition, with another 36 percent listed in fair condition. That’s nearly 90 percent of the roads that make up most of what we drive on each day.

Oh, and by the way, SCDOT pointed out in that report that nearly 21,000 miles of secondary road are not eligible for federal funding. The state must pick up the bill.

Ready for bridges now?

Thankfully, 66 percent of the state’s bridges are in good condition. Only 11 percent are considered to be in poor shape; 23 percent are in fair condition. However, consider this: SCDOT says 1,663 bridges are substandard. Of those, nearly 900 are “structurally deficient,” meaning the deck, superstructure or substructure is rated in poor condition. The other nearly 800 substandard bridges are “functionally obsolete.”

Mind you, this information only covers state-owned bridges. There are likely tons of others that need repair as well.

One group of state senators has proposed borrowing up to $1.3 billion for road and bridge construction, which would be raised through increases in the gasoline tax. Right now, the tax stands at 16 cents; the senators want it to reach 20 cents by 2020.

This is one of those things where I and others who think as I do are going to have to agree to disagree with those of you who believe we shouldn’t raise taxes one more penny if not roll them back. I’m willing to pay my fair share -- as long as it is fair -- to see these repairs made. Of course, if someone can find a way to fund all this work without raising taxes, please do so. That would be great.

These repairs must be made, however. Citizens are asking for such repairs to be made. Lynn Anderson Hunter, who lives out in the east Camden area, recently posted pictures to the C-I’s Facebook page of “patch jobs” done on Joy Road, which she travels every day. “If we can pay to have them patched, why can’t they be freshly paved roads,” Hunter said. “If we can’t maintain them, I say go back to dirt roads; at least the tractor men come around and scrape them on a regular basis.”

Obviously, bridges must be a high priority, too. I-20 runs right through Kershaw County, as do U.S. highways 1, 521 and 601, not to mention state highways such as 34. All of these roads have bridges.

I don’t know what the current state of all our county’s roads and bridges are, but I travel around enough to know that there’s plenty of work to do.

After all, we don’t want happened on the Skagit River to happen on the Wateree.

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