Last fiscal year, the S.C. Department of Transportation estimated it filled more than 37,000 potholes in small, rural Kershaw County – the biggest number among the state’s 46 counties.
In comparison, the pothole total was more than three times DOT’s projected number of patched potholes in Greenville County – the state’s most-populous county – and nearly 25 times the estimate for Charleston County, which has the third-largest population.
The Nerve found more seemingly inflated pothole numbers in a review of a DOT database.
After DOT in its last annual report claimed that it had filled a total of about 411,000 potholes statewide in fiscal 2018, which ran from July 1, 2017, through last June 30, The Nerve on Jan. 16 submitted a request under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act seeking records on how the agency arrived at the 411,000 figure.
In its answer, released on April 5, DOT indicated its 409,739 figure was not an actual count of every pothole. Rather, according to the agency, it was an estimate based on the total amount of asphalt used last fiscal year – 97,313 tons – and the amount of asphalt – 475 pounds – needed to fill an “average” size pothole measuring 3 feet long, 3 feet wide and 4.75 inches deep.
The total cost of patching potholes statewide last fiscal year was $20.6 million, DOT records show. The agency in its response noted that the “methods and materials used to patch potholes vary.”
In passing a 2017 law that raised the state gas tax 12 cents per gallon over six years and increased other vehicle taxes and fees, legislators promised that the revenues would go toward fixing the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges. But The Nerve has repeatedly pointed out that DOT has spent relatively little from revenues generated under the law, and that the agency plans to use a good chunk of those funds for widening interstates.
In response to The Nerve’s latest open-records request, DOT released a 350-page spreadsheet showing the total amount of asphalt used on individually listed state-maintained roads in every county last fiscal year. Based on the agency’s formula for determining the total number of patched potholes statewide, The Nerve broke that projection down to each listed road in the database and calculated county estimated totals.
Following is a list of the counties with at least an estimated 10,000 filled potholes in fiscal 2018, based on DOT’s formula:
- Kershaw: 37,451
- Sumter: 35,863
- Williamsburg: 32,250
- Berkeley: 31,492
- Horry: 27,589
- Richland: 25,080
- Colleton: 20,023
- Georgetown: 13,474
- Dillon: 12,627
- Jasper: 12,246
- Florence: 11,839
- Lexington: 11,650
- Greenville: 10,086
Charleston County, with an estimated 1,515 patched potholes last fiscal year, was among 10 counties – the rest of them small and rural – with the lowest totals, The Nerve’s review found. McCormick County was at the bottom of the list with a projected 236 filled potholes.
And those rankings typically didn’t match up with the total number of repaired roads by county last fiscal year. The DOT database listed more than 15,000 roads statewide, including interstates, that were repaired in “both” directions, The Nerve’s review found.
Below are the 10 counties with the highest total number of repaired roads in “both” directions, according to the database:
- Lexington: 1,041
- Richland: 954
- Florence: 695
- Orangeburg: 623
- Darlington: 597
- York: 590
- Sumter: 564
- Cherokee: 479
- Lancaster: 461
- Chesterfield: 457
Contacted Tuesday, Gerald Shealy, a former maintenance engineer who worked in Richland, Lexington, Newberry and Lee counties over 30 years before retiring in 1999, told The Nerve he doesn’t believe that DOT is properly repairing potholes.
“There are a lot of things to patching a pothole that they don’t do,” he said. “I don’t think they know how to patch a pothole to be honest with you, not at least from what I’ve seen.”
Shealy said he wouldn’t be surprised if many of the same potholes are being repatched every month. In contrast, he said potholes that his crews worked on typically lasted months longer.
“What people don’t realize, a pothole is not the pavement failing,” he said. “The (road) base failed is what caused the pothole, and when you just throw some asphalt in it and that’s all you do, you just repeat what happened.”
According to a DOT engineering directive released to The Nerve in its latest open-records request, interstates are supposed to be inspected monthly during daylight hours, primary routes once every six months, and secondary routes once yearly.
“The purpose of these inspections is to detect deficiencies that could pose a hazard to motorists or pedestrians, thus creating a risk for the Department,” according to the directive, which took effect March 3, 2011.
The agency has said 80 percent of the state’s approximately 42,000 miles of roads needs to be resurfaced or rebuilt, and identified 465 out of 750 “structurally deficient” bridges to be replaced.
DOT head Christy Hall publicly has said that potholes are temporary fixes, particularly during “wet weather or winter months.” The agency in January announced it was launching a “Pothole Blitz” to repair what it contended was a growing number of potholes statewide brought on by recent rains.
But as with the claim of 411,000 patched potholes last fiscal year, Hall at a February DOT Commission meeting acknowledged that the approximately 43,000 potholes filled statewide during the first month of the “blitz” was just an estimate “based on a calculation” by the agency’s engineering division, as The Nerve reported then. Her statements came two days after The Nerve submitted an open-records request to DOT for records on the “blitz.”
Shealy said a big problem is that DOT is not cleaning out drainage ditches as frequently as was done in years past, explaining that when roads get more water on them, there is a higher likelihood that potholes will form. On top of that, he added, the agency has been using outside contractors to patch potholes, which drives up costs.
In its response to The Nerve’s latest open-records request, DOT said a total of 2,508 employees were involved in “pothole patching activities” last fiscal year.
For the fiscal year that starts July 1, lawmakers have proposed increasing DOT’s maintenance budget by about $53 million, or 21 percent, to $301 million. But that amount would be $10.7 million less compared to fiscal 2017.
DOT’s total proposed budget for 2019-20 is about $2.6 billion, which, if enacted, would be an increase of more than $191 million, or nearly 8 percent, from this fiscal year.
The Nerve on Tuesday sent follow-up questions to DOT about the agency’s fiscal 2018 pothole estimates, but received no response by publication of this story.