County's dirt roads stir debate on safety
Former Aiken Standard Features Editor Kathy Petty once had an appreciation for dirt roads, which she said was a “rapidly disappearing Southern reality.”
But Petty's love for these dusty avenues deteriorated when she found herself stuck on a dirt road after her vehicle sank in the soft sand on a summer day in which the temperature reached 104. Petty described her frustration in a column published in 1986 and decided she wouldn't tempt fate on an unpaved road ever again.
Dirt roads are either loved or hated in Aiken County. They have historic and nostalgic value to some, but others find them to be quite an inconvenience.
The County is slowly having these roads paved as funds and right-of-way become available. It's also spending a good chunk of money to maintain the roads still made of dirt.
Miles of dirt, lots of maintenance
According to County Public Works Director John Dyches, there were 637 unpaved roads in the county as of August. That's down from about 660 in 2010.
“That's not too shabby,” Dyches said about the progress in paving those roads. “Most of that we can attribute to sales tax funding.”
A lot of time and money goes into maintaining these dirt roads. Dyches said it's about a $4 million operation annually to cover the payroll, fuel and maintenance of equipment.
The County has nine motor graders to help level and flatten the surface of these roads, which are typically serviced every five to six weeks. Some are graded more frequently, depending on how often a road is used or if it was severely impacted by weather.
Dyches said the heavy rains over the summer didn't make the job easy for his crews.
“We're at the mercy of Mother Nature if it's a dirt road or even a paved road,” Dyches said.
Paving and funding
County Councilwoman Kathy Rawls' district, which is mostly rural, contains about 70 percent of the county's dirt roads. She said a lot of progress has been made as a lot of the Capital Project Sales Tax funding dedicated to paving these roads have been used in her area.
Rawls noted Merritts Bridge Road in New Holland, a dirt road with severe drainage problems, as one that will be paved thanks to the most current round of Sales Tax funds. She said she's even more eager to see Bussey Road in Windsor paved because it leads to a church, and some attendees have experienced issues getting to services due to the condition of the road.
Windsor resident Fran Bush said she was quite relieved when the dirt road near her home was paved nearly eight years ago. She said she actually would avoid using the road to get to her home because of how bumpy it was, which created a “washboard effect.”
Now, her ride home is a lot smoother.
“It would wear your car out quick,” Bush said. “I would go through three or four miles out of my way (to get home.) Now it's a straight shot and no problem.”
Councilman Scott Singer has the second largest amount of dirt roads in his district, which includes New Ellenton. He said he gets more calls about dirt roads than any other issue.
Singer pointed out that the first round of Capital Project Sales Tax funds went exclusively to paving roads. He said it's a suitable vehicle for funding these road-paving projects, but over the years, the desire to decrease the miles of dirt roads was appropriately balanced with other capital needs.
Singer said everybody deserves to live on a functional road, but taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill to pave each one. He said that roads that are frequently used or have a need to be more accessible to emergency vehicles or other important modes of transportation, such as school buses, should be considered first for paving.
There are not many other funding opportunities for the County to use to cover the cost of paving dirt roads. C-Funds, also known as the gas tax, are rebated to the County for road improvements. But County Administrator Clay Killian said that 25 percent of that goes to improvements of state roads within the County lines.
The remaining money, which is approximately $1.5 to $2 million annually, is best used for traffic signals and other maintenance of county roads, Killian said. He added that it can cost up to $500,000 to pave a single mile of road.
Some dirt roads aren't paved because the County cannot obtain the right-of-way needed or residents simply don't want it.
Dyches said some people have horses and would rather keep the sandy, soft roads rather than going to hard asphalt. Others fear a paved road will create more traffic.
Some roads will remain unpaved because they're considered historic. For example, the City of Aiken has 12 roads on its Historic Register that were designated many years ago to ensure that they wouldn't be paved, said City Senior Planner Susan French. She added that in some cases, not the whole road is designated, but rather just the unpaved portion. All of those roads are in the City's historic district.
For progress updates on County road paving projects under the Capital Projects Sales Tax, visit www.aikencountysc.gov and click on “Capital Sales Tax Projects Maps” listed under the “Online Now” column.