WTOC Investigates: Deadly 17

JASPER CO., SC (WTOC) - It's one of the deadliest and talked about roads in South Carolina: U.S. Highway 17 just across the Talmadge Bridge.

WTOC's own Don Logana died in a crash on the road last year. The highway has been on the list for improvements with the SCDOT for years.

District 46 Senator Tom Davis slams the neglect on Hwy. 17 as nothing but political. He says the politics have cost numerous lives over the years. It could be almost a decade before you see the project finished.

The road is full of potholes and has barely any shoulder on either side.  OC Welch drives it twice a day. One trip in 2005 sticks in his memory to this day.

"Quarter to 8 p.m., 10 minutes to 8 p.m. Just getting dark, a light rain, a truck was trying to turn into one of the strip joints," said Welch.

A driver behind that stopped car either didn't see him or wasn't paying attention.

"He ran off the road to avoid hitting the back of that car, and when he tried to get back up in the road, he overcorrected it, crossed the center line and hit me and Chip," said Welch.

The woman in the car that hit Welch died. Welch and his son made it out alive.

"I'm happy to be alive," Welch said. "It was definitely, when you see someone die right in front of you, that kind of sticks in you."

Welch called this stretch of roadway the most dangerous in South Carolina, and the numbers are on his side.

"Looking at the numbers, looking at the crashes here, it's a dangerous road," said Lance Cpl. Matthew Southern with the South Carolina Highway Patrol.

The number of fatal wrecks is staggering. In 2014, no one died on the road. In 2015, that number jumped to three.

In 2016, that number jumped to seven, including WTOC's own Don Logana.

"It's the toughest road out there, and the road is inadequate for the amount of traffic it gets, and that road is in horrible condition," said Welch.

That fact isn't lost on state leaders. The South Carolina Department of Transportation says it's the number one project in the four-county area around Jasper County. Still, nothing has been done to make it better.

"It isn't simply a function of money. It's not just a question of taxing people more and putting more money into the system. It's about fixing that system that everybody agrees is politically driven and broken," said Davis.

In 2009, the DOT spent $1 billion on roads and bridges. In 2016 that number more than doubled to $2.3 billion. The money, Davis says, isn't the issue. It's how it's being spent.

"A 130 percent increase in spending and over the eight-year period. No other area of state government has grown that much. Not education, not healthcare. But you haven't seen the outcome you would expect based on the increase in funding because we have a politically driven, politically inefficient way of spending that money," said Davis.

According to him, the money is instead funneled to projects in other parts of the state represented by more influential politicians. Other state leaders such as the late Sen. Clementa Pinckney lobbied for years to get this project funded to no avail.

"Everybody agreed that it needed to be done. The traffic fatalities there were horrendous, economic development had occurred up and down that corridor, yet he couldn't get funding for that project," said Davis. "Not because it wasn't meritorious, but because the political powers that be in Columbia simply weren't in Jasper County. That's no way to spend people's money. That's a third world way of spending money."

The DOT says the wetland mitigation and soil conditions in the area have slowed the project, not politics. Davis vows to fight to fix what he calls a broken system in Columbia.

The length of time is no solace for the families who have buried loved ones over the years on the beat down road.

Plans are finally in place to fix it. Phase 1 of the project includes widening Hwy. 17 to four lanes from the Back River Bridge to the 315. All of the $54 million it costs is accounted for.

The project should start sometime in the summer of 2018 with a completion date sometime in 2020 or 2021.

Phase 2 will begin in 2020 and includes the addition of another Back River Bridge. The funding will be split with South Carolina paying 90 percent and Georgia paying the other 10 percent.

Looking at the timeline, it could be the better part of a decade before the road is finally fixed.

Law enforcers pledge to do their part but say it ultimately comes down to the driver.

"A driver has to do what they have to do based upon what they're given. They're given two lanes here, given a speed limit. They have to do what they have to do to stay safe," said Southern.

For Welch, the memory of the wreck and its consequences still linger in his mind.

"If it was four lanes, it would not have happened, and that lady would still be alive today," said Welch.

The South Carolina DOT says a construction review is out right now on a repaving project for Hwy. 17 in the meantime. They could not give a timeline on that project.

When we asked the South Carolina highway patrol about increased enforcement, I was told they look at numbers but could not discuss enforcement plans in detail.

We reached out to Gov. Nikki Haley's office before her appointment to the UN. Her office never responded. Gov. Henry McMaster declined our request for an interview.

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