By John Jeter
The Bridges of Madison County is a cheesy love story. This story is about the bridges of Laurens County, an allegorical tale of roads, infrastructure, vision, and, yes, wooden bridges. Laurens County has 19 of them, and while the Upstate’s more urbanized counties face complicated and costly people-moving solutions, Laurens County is working to bridge the stakeholders of yesterday and tomorrow.
“In the past, we have looked at our transportation issues being our own issues,” says Rob Russian, the county’s public works director. “I think we’re looking at transportation issues much more on a regional level, as opposed to a county level, than we used to.”
Laurens County maintains about 400 miles of the county’s 1,700 miles of roads, Russian says. Of the rest, the state Department of Transportation maintains 1,100 miles, with the remainder private thoroughfares. Greenville County, by contrast, is responsible for nearly 1,800 of its own, non-state road miles.
While a single mile can cost up to $250,000, building a wooden-pile bridge—or repairing one—can run upwards of $400,000; that is, if DOT’s own crews do the work, with private contractors bidding nearly double that, says Russian, who worked 14 years for the state agency. Clinton Mayor Bob McLean sums up the entire transportation problem: “We need more money; that’s an issue.”
That’s the issue, Russian says.
“The capital costs of upgrading that infrastructure is still a challenge,” he says, again citing the county’s bridges: “How do we pay the capital costs of replacing some of these structures, or is it worth it?”
That’s a question for Allison Fluitt, senior transportation planner and engineer at Kimley-Horn. The North Carolina-headquartered national consultancy helped develop the “Horizon 2040 Long-Range Transportation Plan” for the Greenville-Pickens Area Transportation Study, or GPATS, which plans and allocates funds for transportation. Part of Laurens County is under GPATS jurisdiction.
“One of the biggest challenges for them is, what is their role going to be in the Upstate going forward?” Fluitt says. “Laurens County has to decide what they want to be when they grow up. Do they want to be a rural enclave—not to say that as a negative, but do you want to keep the rural character that helped shape the character of the area?”
County Administrator Jon Caime agrees. “Our citizens love Laurens County because we don’t have those growth problems yet. If we fail to plan ahead, we will lose the appeal that attracts many to Laurens County and keeps many here, too.”
The county sees its most explosive growth around Fountain Inn, which also lies partly in Greenville County. Caime says I-385 exits 19 and 22 are “in dire need of redesign and very costly reworking.”
Another challenge: Laurens County has no complete inventory of its infrastructure assets. In March, the county’s “Long Term Financial Plan and First Release of the FY19 Budget” said: “We have hundreds of miles of roads and potentially tens of millions of dollars in bridge replacement projects we need to quantify.”
While Caime says he’s working on a 2040 strategic plan, he adds that his vision “encompasses all the components of the fabric of Laurens County.” Those threads include health, education, economic activity, recreation, and, of course, infrastructure, which, he says, ties all those fiscal and lifestyle issues together.
Moreover, he notes, “Breaking the cycle of poverty is most likely a key part of that plan.” Lack of dependable transportation affects employment, he says.
Back in Clinton, McLean says his city is heading in the right direction.
“We’re actually putting money into roads that we didn’t have before,” he says. “We’ve made more investment in the last three years than in the last 50 combined.”
All the stakeholders interviewed for this story agree that the road to improved infrastructure—and even such visionary technologies as light rail, autonomous vehicles, and ride-sharing apps—is paved as much with gold as it is with political will.
For instance, McLean says he supports the General Assembly’s 2017 gas tax that raises the price per gallon by 10 cents over the next decade.
“I hate paying taxes as much as anybody, but I like driving on roads that are safe for my children and grandchildren.”
Fluitt, meanwhile, sums up the others’ thoughts this way: “This is a transformative time for transportation, the way we travel, conduct business—the way we live.”