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The Sorry State Of South Carolina's Roads


There's a saying in South Carolina you'll know you've crossed the border because the roads in South Carolina are so bad. Now they're hardly the only state that might have bad roads, but South Carolina does have the nation's highest traffic fatality rate. South Carolina Public Radio's Alexandra Olgin reports.

ALEXANDRA OLGIN, BYLINE: Cars zip by on this two-lane highway outside of Charleston. There's pretty much no shoulder. There is no lighting. And there are lots of trees. It's a very wooded area. And next to one of the trees is a wooden cross and a faded green T-shirt. This spot right here is where 17-year-old Tripp Rabon died.

SANDRA RABON: It wasn't their fault. And it was preventable. And to have to live with that for the rest of our lives is so, so sad.

OLGIN: That's his mother, Sandra Rabon. Tripp and a few friends were going duck hunting early in the morning two days before Christmas in 2015, when their car flipped and hit a tree. Tripp died months before high school graduation.

GLENN RABON: I'm still having trouble talking about it.

OLGIN: Glenn was very close to his son. He doesn't feel there's enough attention to roadway safety.

G. RABON: A lot of discussions about roadways are about traffic. We need more roads or we need this or we need that. But the thing that's going on that no one appreciates until it happens to you is the number of deaths.

OLGIN: Last year, 975 died on South Carolina roads. There are many factors in these accidents, including the roads themselves. The American Society of Civil Engineers evaluated the country's transportation network and concluded 1 out of every 5 miles of highway pavement is in poor condition.

But it's not just potholes and cracked roads, narrow streets without guardrails, paved shoulders or good lighting make the situation even worse. Ronnie Cooper, with a trucking company out of Charleston, put it this way.

RONNIE COOPER: Too many of our roads have little room for error. One bad move, one mistake, one moment of inattention can be deadly.

OLGIN: Making roads safer is expensive. And lawmakers have struggled with how to pay for it. This year, more than a dozen states are considering raising gas taxes, including South Carolina which hasn't enacted an increase in three decades. The head of the state's transportation department, Christy Hall, says delaying maintenance yesterday makes fixing it today that much more expensive.

CHRISTY HALL: Because our system has decayed as much as it has. And we're basically having to reconstruct the majority of the roads. The costs are ten times higher than if we had just done it when the road first needed the repair.

OLGIN: Minor adjustments can increase safety. Rocky Moretti with TRIP, a transportation research organization, points to Texas. He says several years ago, officials there made minor adjustments on a stretch of rural road like...

ROCKY MORETTI: Adding guardrails, adding rumble strips. On those thousand miles of roadways, what they're seeing annually are 40 fewer traffic fatalities. So in a decade, there'll be 400 fewer traffic fatalities in Texas because of one rural road program.

OLGIN: Moretti says Georgia, Iowa, Pennsylvania and several other states have boosted transportation funding in recent years. Although there is excitement about President Trump's call for a large investment in the nation's infrastructure, Moretti says states still need to cover most of the road improvement costs.

With limited budgets and reluctance to increase taxes, lawmakers aren't left with easy choices. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Olgin in Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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