By Mike Hembree
Published April 26, 2013
The trucks that haul lumber for Log Creek Timber Co., based in Edgefield, can weigh 80,000 pounds.
The company harvests timber in 10 counties in the Savannah River corridor. The typical distance from timber tracts to mills in Augusta, Newberry or Eastover is 50 to 80 miles. But a Log Creek Timber driver’s workday is not “typical.” Because loaded timber trucks are not allowed to cross aging state bridges that are in disrepair, detours typically add 10 to 15 miles to each trip.
Read more in-depth business news in the Columbia Regional Business Report. Subscribe online.
The task force, chaired by DOT commissioner Craig Forrest, concluded that the consequences of failing to act on road and bridge problems in the state include “deterioration of roads and bridges, reduced highway safety, posting or closing of bridges, increased traffic congestion, increased vehicle upkeep and a loss of economic competitiveness.”
During the task force’s study, state Secretary of Transportation Robert St. Onge said that, without adequate financial resources, his job will be to “manage the decline of the highway system.”
The shortfall in road maintenance funding by the General Assembly is being felt on the state’s economic development efforts, as well. S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt and other speakers said at last month’s transportation, distribution and logistics summit that the top priority among business leaders is a $29 billion funding shortfall over the next 20 years needed to repair roads, replace bridges and invest in mass transit and rail transportation.
“We have to fight for the resources,” Hitt said. “I have companies complain to me that they have to alter their routes continuously because they can’t cross bridges and so forth.”
The state’s transportation department is responsible for more than 41,000 highway miles and more than 8,300 bridges. The DOT estimates that only 13% of the primary highways in the state — consisting of both federal and state routes — are in “good” condition. The department rates 1,663 of the state’s bridges “substandard.” More than 400 bridges are load-restricted, meaning trucks transporting loads in excess of the designated weights aren’t allowed to cross them.
In Edgefield County alone, 27 state-owned bridges are load-restricted.
“We use a lot of secondary roads to access timber tracts, and, with the bridges and the weight limits, we have to go many miles out of the way every day because we can’t cross these bridges with a loaded log truck,” said Reg Williams, vice president of Log Creek Timber. “When we’re figuring the value of that wood for individual landowners, we have to discount that timber because more of the proceeds have to go into trucking and fuel. There are not direct routes to the mills. It affects landowners because they receive less for their product.
“It also means more pollution, more wear and tear on vehicles, more tires — more everything.”
Roads a problem for truckers
The declining status of many roads and bridges in the state is a significant problem for the trucking industry in general, S.C. Trucking Association President Rick Todd said. The situation manifests itself in traffic delays because of congestion, longer routes because of substandard and load-restricted bridges, and higher fuel costs because of extended travel.
All of these problems make the business of trucking less efficient, he said.
“There are costs associated with that in terms of fuel consumption and the inefficiencies related to wasted time. And there are limits in terms of the number of hours drivers can work in a given day,” he said.
“Typically, we have a certain amount of control over scheduling, but we’re limited there, too, because we’re meeting our customers’ demands. Customers have delivery windows within which we have to schedule. Many places don’t have 24-hour loading docks. The supply chain has a bunch of moving parts.”
Cam Crawford, president of the S.C. Forestry Association, said the infrastructure problem is particularly tough for companies dependent upon small roads.
“If there is a load-restricted bridge in an area, a logging truck is going to have to travel on average an additional 15 to 20 miles round trip,” he said. “Logging trucks get about 5 miles per gallon. Diesel fuel is about $4 a gallon. You can quickly add that up and see how that would impact the logging truck.”
In one case, Crawford said, the sale of a timber property brought $15,000 less because of fuel costs incurred by longer travel routes for the truck drivers.
“This also impacts our (paper) mills,” he said. “We have three mills in the state that receive over 400 truckloads a day. If you’re having to go around all these load-restricted bridges, you’re adding time. You’re not efficient.”
Trucking lobbyists work the state Legislature with these issues in mind, but numerous problems, including population and traffic growth, fuel cost increases and anti-tax sentiment, make a solution difficult, at best. South Carolina’s user fee of 16.75 cents per gallon of gasoline is the fourth-lowest in the nation and hasn’t been raised since 1987. But legislators are typically resistant to increasing taxes, particularly in an era in which many campaigned on promises to never raise taxes.
“We are at a roadblock with them,” said Jimmy Randolph, treasurer of Cherokee County-based Randolph Trucking, a family operation that has been in business for 65 years. “We’ve done everything to try to move up the gas and fuel tax. We’ve tried to convince the Legislature, but they won’t do it. Any tax increase, they’re against. But we have to fix our roads.”
The declining status of the highway and bridge system attracts attention from trucking entities across the nation.
“Infrastructure is an issue that our association pays a lot of attention to for a lot of reasons, one of them being that truckers pay into the highway trust fund by way of fees and taxes,” said Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a Missouri-based, 150,000-member organization that represents independent truck operators. “That money is supposed to be used for roads and bridges and highway maintenance, so they have a vested interest in seeing that happen. And, just in general, the issue for everybody is safety.”
The costs associated with highway maintenance are staggering. Construction of interstate highway interchanges runs from $35 million to $50 million per project, and widening projects typically cost $10 million to $12 million per mile, according to DOT figures. The transportation department task force report said the state’s highway program revenue base is “well below the national average and clearly insufficient to meet construction and maintenance needs.”
DOT estimates the state will be short $29 billion in highway construction and maintenance in the next two decades. And competing interests in the state stretch from the mountains to the sea.
“It’s easy to pinpoint where the congestion is,” Todd said. “We call that bottlenecking. Interstate 77 and Interstate 26 south of Columbia is a prime example of a huge bottleneck. And ‘malfunction junction’ (the Columbia I-26 corridor) is a big old cluster, one big mess. It’s poorly designed and needs complete re-engineering. That’s a huge project in itself. People start arguing, ‘Well, where do our mega-projects need to be? Should it be malfunction junction, the I-526 extension, I-73?’ That’s when parochialism starts getting in the way. We need a statewide outlook.”
Estimating the state has lost $2.6 billion in economic activity because of congestion, the DOT lists four clogged locations — I-26 at Dorchester Road in North Charleston, I-385 at state 417 in Greenville County, I-26 at St. Andrews Road near Columbia, and U.S. Highway 17 at state 707 near Myrtle Beach.
“We’re dealing with a huge dichotomy,” Todd said. “On the Department of Commerce website, they promote South Carolina advantages and point to ‘unparalleled infrastructure.’ But we have a DOT relegated to saying their job now is to manage the decline of the state’s highway system.”