DOT official discusses state’s roads, future

  • Thursday, June 5, 2014

Anita Crone/For South Strand news Mike Wooten speaks to members of the South Strand Chamber of Commerce.

When it comes to South Carolina roads, Mike Wooten knows his stuff.

Wooten, a civil engineer, represents the 7th Congressional District on the S.C. Department of Transportation board.

He brought his expertise May 28 to a meeting of the South Strand Chamber of Commerce, laying out the good and the bad on the state’s roads.

He outlined the partnerships that DOT has with the counties, the federal government and with other state agencies – all things that work to make it easy or at the least easier to get the job done.

“Our job is to build roads, to get people from place to place and allow commerce to occur in South Carolina, he told the group of business people gathered at the quarterly meeting of the organization at Inlet Affairs.

And he highlighted the obstacles.

“The obstacles we run up against are significant, they are formidable and they are costly,” he said.

They are not unbeatable, however.

He pointed out that 20 percent of the state’s fatal crashes occur at intersections, but on the plus side, there’s been an 18 percent reduction since 2008, pointing out that traffic circles are one way that has helped.

All is not bleak, though.

He highlighted the state’s safety record – lauding the statistics that put road fatalities in the state at the lowest point since 1982 – but noting that the fatalities are still higher than the national average.

That may come into play should the feds make safety a priority in allocating funding.

He pointed out that 50 percent of all S.C. road fatalities involve vehicles leaving the road, and to that end, he discussed trees – particularly trees in medians.

“We started a project – those of you who have ridden 26 from Charleston to Columbia. When you get to Summerville, there’s a median, and in that median, there are pine trees,” he said. That segment of roadway to about Vance or Orangeburg. That segment of road in the last four years has claimed 42 lives.”

He pointed out that there was no way to put a cable barrier, because the way the road is constructed, vehicles would jump the cable barrier and go into the median and hit a tree.

He called the cable barrier a marvelous invention, crediting it with saving more lives probably than any other traffic safety device that has ever been invented.

“They literally grab the car and hold it,” he explained.

“The environmental groups came out en masse against cutting down the beautiful pine trees,” he said, noting that he got about six phone calls.

“I told the callers that pine trees are a crop, they’re killing people and they have to go,” Wooten said.

He talked about funding – which he called his least favorite subject but the one that is most important to the taxpayers of the state.

He pointed out that the sales tax on gasoline is 22 cents a gallon lower than in North Carolina, 19 cents a gallon lower than Georgia. He challenged the drivers to go to Little River or Rock Hill or Hardeeville or North Augusta.

“I guarantee that if you look up at the marquee, the difference in the price of gas is no more than 6 cents a gallon,” he said.

“We have the fourth longest state-supported roadway in South Carolina, and we’re fourth from the bottom in funding,” he said, shaking his head.

Wooten pointed out that raising gas tax a penny a gallon would raise $26 million.

He became impassioned when speaking about not raising taxes to fix the roads. “Everything goes up,” he said. “Buy a quart of milk lately? It will take courage, but if we don’t do it, we will have more roads and bridges that will fall into the ‘poor’ category,” he said.

Wooten praised local option sales taxes for roads, including Ride 2.

“No one gave us a chance, when we started, but the list went to the ballot and it passed,” he said.

He praised the Ride 2 allocation of roads to be improved based on need. But, he warned, it’s important to continue to rank projects based on need rather than on politics.

That may be even more necessary should federal funds be cut off.

“The federal highway bill runs out in August,” Wooten said.

He’s optimistic that something will be done because “every congressman has a DOT that he has to answer to.”

Holding his thumb and index finger about half an inch apart, he said that “we are this close to getting a permit for Interstate 73,” he said, referencing the roadway from Michigan to the beach.

He also said that DOT is applying for a federal grant to bring SC 22 up to federal interstate standards.

“We’re asking for a $30 million grant. We won’t get it all, but we have a shot,” he said, adding that it would help evacuate people from the South Strand in the event of a storm.

“If we don’t do something and a category 4 storm hits, people are going to die,” Wooten said.

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