The Town of Lockhart had a dilemma: An aging, potentially dangerous bridge had to be replaced. But to do so, the state transportation department required the town of about 500 to pay for water and sewer lines to be relocated to accommodate the project.
Replacing the aging bridge in the Town of Lockhart meant finding the funds to move utility lines. Photo: S.C. Department of Transportation.
"We didn't have the money to pay for it," said Lockhart Mayor Ailene Ashe. "We do not even have a tax base."
The town was able to secure $100,000 in "C" funds from Union County. Then, with the help of their local lawmaker, Rep. Mike Anthony, D – Union, approximately $250,000 was allocated in the state budget in 2016.
"Because of the fact we're such a poor town, and we don't have that kind of money, they passed it," said Ashe. "So we did not have to pay to move the utilities. And normally you would — but then normally, you don't have a town like this."
The Lockhart situation illustrates a puzzle: Transportation infrastructure, such as bridges and roads, is a crucial piece of a town's economic development viability. But small towns with a scant or nonexistent tax base scramble to shoulder the expense of moving utility lines, a required step before roads and bridges can be upgraded. Adequate roads and bridges are part of what potential businesses require in order to locate there and ultimately support a local tax base.
The Town of Hickory Grove was fortunate to receive $203,000 from York County's Pennies for Progress capital projects sales and use tax programs, which was used to move 1,500 feet of water lines in order to accommodate the addition of shoulders to S.C. 97, a scenic highway.
"This was major for us," said William Rhodes, clerk/treasurer for Hickory Grove.
When widening roads, engineers prefer moving water and sewer lines during construction to avoid having to rip up a newly widened road to fix an ailing pipe underneath it later.
"It's not a heavily traveled road," said Patrick Hamilton, program manager for Pennies for Progress, referring to S.C. 97, which connects the towns of Hickory Grove and Smyrna and is the major access road to the interstate. "It's very rural, but it is very important for the people who live there."
County voters approved the fourth 1-cent tax for roadway improvements in November of last year. Years earlier, the York County Council decided to include utility relocation in the list of work the penny-tax revenue would pay for.
"Folks came to County Council and said, 'All these projects are great, but we literally can't pay for them,'" said Hamilton, adding that the towns of York and Clover have also received funding from the county to relocate utility infrastructure ahead of road projects.
Some relief may be coming.
This legislative session, Sen. Paul Campbell, R – Goose Creek, introduced S932, and Rep. Dwight Loftis, R – Greenville, introduced H3739, which would shift the cost of relocating water and sewer lines from public utilities to road project owners like the S.C. Department of Transportation. The project owner would reimburse public utilities for expenditures related to relocating water and sewer lines including right of way acquisition. The amount the utility could recoup would depend on the size of the utility, with small utilities eligible for full reimbursement.
Hamilton said the legislation, if passed into law, would not affect York County's cities and towns since the county foots the expense through its capital sales and use tax. But he said it would help with the challenge of moving utility lines for areas that do not have the tax.
"These road projects are great for everyone living there, but it's tough for municipalities to come up with the funding."