Flooding toll on South Carolina still unknown

By Greg Grisolano, Land Line associate editor

The number of lives lost in South Carolina because of flooding from a historic amount of rainfall is now 14, according to the latest reports from the state’s emergency management agency.

One of the deceased – 45-year-old SCDOT employee Timothy Gibson – was in a vehicle that was swept away by rushing floodwaters while he was inspecting flood damage in Columbia on Sunday morning.

“Timothy Gibson was just one SCDOT employee who left the safety of his own home and family on a Sunday morning to serve the state of South Carolina,” acting SCDOT secretary Christy A. Hall said in a statement shared in a post on the agency’s Facebook page. “He was working to make the roads safe again against incredible odds. But Timothy Gibson represented the hundreds of SCDOT employees who have been working tirelessly throughout the flooding ever since the preparations began late last week.”

Federal relief funds are already flowing into South Carolina, as U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Tuesday that $5 million in emergency funds from the FHWA was made available to SCDOT for road and bridge repairs.

“Emergency relief funding will help the state begin immediately to recover from record breaking flooding,” Foxx said in a press release. “We want South Carolinians to know this funding is only a down payment on our commitment to ensuring all highways and bridges are repaired in the state. More resources will become available as estimates for the cost of repairs become clear.”

South Carolina experienced torrential rains on Oct. 2, which continued for several days. Rainfall reached more than 20 inches in many areas and produced significant flooding that damaged the state’s highways and bridges. Critical routes in the state, such as I-95, are closed and travelers are experiencing lengthy detours to bypass affected areas.

The FHWA’s Emergency Relief program provides funding for highways and bridges damaged by natural disasters or catastrophic events.

In addition to the death toll, 287 state-maintained roads and 150 state-maintained bridges remained closed because of flooding, according to reports from the South Carolina Department of Transportation. According to SCDOT, as of this afternoon, the last portion of Interstate 26 near I-126 and US 378 at the Saluda River reopened, making all of I-26 open statewide. SCDOT has been providing updates on road and bridge closures via its Twitter account. In addition, the agency offers a free mobile app for smartphones that provides real time traffic and roadway conditions. 

Rick Todd, president and CEO of the South Carolina Trucking Association, called the downpour an “unprecedented event” and said it was particularly rough in an area of the state known as The Midlands, from the Atlantic Coast westward into the state capitol of Columbia.

The SCTA headquarters is located in Columbia, where Todd said state agencies are still encouraging residents to stay off the roads until the floodwaters recede.

“Our roads, our highway infrastructure, even the Norfolk Southern Railroad line out of Charleston has been closed,” he said. “We’re very concerned that when the water recedes, we’re going to see it’s exacerbated the effects of deferred maintenance on our highway system.”

Todd said on Tuesday that he’s anticipating the need for disaster relief on par with what the area requires following a major hurricane. 

“We’re looking at an already strained DOT and local government,” he said. “It’s really going to pose a challenge to them going forward to fix what we got.”

When it comes to disaster relief, Todd said trucking is never more essential than during times of disaster and emergency relief. 

“We are the critical form of transportation, and we will just continue to prove that,” he said. “We saw the need and the ultimate appreciation for what trucks do for us during Hurricane Hugo. It’s times like these when we get that kind of need, and eventually that kind of recognition again. This is one of those things where industry, every profession, everybody is doing everything they can. But you’ve got to have that truck. It’s the workhorse.”

As more than 1,400 state DOT employees scramble to examine the state’s infrastructure following as much as two feet of rainfall in some places, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division is working to coordinate monetary and disaster relief efforts. 

The agency reported on Twitter that no additional water donations are needed. They referred volunteers to this page on their website, which lists charitable organizations the state is partnering with to coordinate disaster relief efforts.

President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in South Carolina, and Gov. Nikki Haley signed a proclamation suspending hours-of-service requirements for truckers in order to deliver equipment, supplies and other needed items to help with the flood relief. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a similar decree.

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Michigan speed bills get statehouse hearing

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor

A legislative effort underway at the Michigan statehouse calls for changing the state’s speed limit rules to authorize truckers and other highway users to drive faster – while maintaining the speed differential on the state’s fastest roadways.

Michigan law now authorizes 70 mph speeds for motorists on certain highways while large trucks are limited to 60 mph. On other major roadways the speeds are 65 mph and 55 mph, respectively.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee met recently to discuss an initiative to alter posted speeds. Sponsored by Rep. Brad Jacobsen, R-Oxford, the lead bill in the package could increase speeds for motorists on rural interstates to 80 mph while trucks could be authorized to drive 70 mph.

Urban interstates could be posted at 70 mph for all users while state highways could be posted at 65 mph. County highways could be posted at 60 mph.

Permitted speeds through construction zones would also be changed. Speeds on highways with only one lane open to traffic would be set at 60 mph. If construction workers are present without a barrier separating them from traffic, the speed would be set at 45 mph.

A provision included in the bill, HB4423, would authorize for changes in speeds to be made if it was determined to be warranted following studies by the Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan State Police.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association says roadways are safer when all vehicles are permitted to travel at the same rate of speed.

Mike Matousek, OOIDA director of state legislative affairs, said in written testimony that “differential speed limits create more interactions between cars and trucks, which can lead to unlawful or dangerous passing, aggressive driving, and ultimately an increase in the number and severity of accidents.”

He added that “they are also a contributing factor to increased congestion and inefficiencies with local, regional, and national goods movement.”

A related effort underway would reform how the state sets speed limits. HB4425 would rely on the 85th percentile rule to set speeds on roadways throughout the state.

Jacobsen testified that the change would use scientific data rather than emotions to determine speed limits.

“Our speed laws will be updated to reflect the speed at which 85 percent of motorists are already safely driving at,” Jacobsen said.

He added that studies done in the state show when the majority of traffic is traveling at the same speed, traffic flow improves, and fewer accidents occur.

James Walker of the National Motorists Association testified that the bills “will virtually eliminate artificially low posted limits for revenue or other reasons.”

In addition, he said “one thing the bills will do that every driver should appreciate is to reduce speed variance and crash risks.”

If approved, the Wolverine State would join 16 other states in authorizing speeds of at least 75 mph. Only two of those states (Idaho and Montana) allow cars to travel one speed, 80 mph, while keeping trucks at a slower speed, 70 and 65 mph respectively.
Maine is the only state east of the Mississippi River with posted speeds in excess of 70 mph.

Also included in the bill package are measures, HB4426 and HB4427, to change the way the state assesses penalty points for speeding violations.

The bills await further consideration in committee.

To view other legislative activities of interest for Michigan, click here.

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