The U.S. 278 corridor improvements project affects all Lowcountry residents - and tourists - and their way of life. Getting to and from the island and the mainland with minimal disruption, reduced congestion, maximum efficiency and increased mobility are what's at stake.
Two public hearings in September and October, attended by hundreds of citizens, were held to educate the public and get its feedback about the six "reasonable alternatives" proposed by the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) after lengthy study. The public comment period ended Oct. 25.
The project involves improvements along the 278 corridor from Moss Creek Drive in Greater Bluffton to Spanish Wells Road on Hilton Head Island. The big picture options involve replacing or modifying the existing bridges across Mackay and Skull creeks, reconditioning and widening the bridges, and improving access to Pinckney Island and the C.C. Haigh Jr. boat ramp.
"It's not just the spans that are causing the traffic issues," said
David Johnson Jr., chairman of the U.S. 278 Gateway Corridor Committee that was formed by the town council earlier this year. "It's the whole corridor."
Rochelle Williams, a native islander and former mayoral candidate, knows all about the corridor. All proposals directly impact the neighborhoods where her Gullah ancestors and neighbors have lived for generations. She feels they're being unfairly displaced and uprooted without fair compensations for their land.
"Thirty years ago, they wanted to do the same project they're doing now; it's not a new plan," the Spanish Wells resident said. "They wanted all of my ancestors out. All up and down 278, the black families have been removed. If they could come up with another idea without removing the black families, I think that would be a great way to go.
"I would love for them to fix the bridge, then leave it as is. ... If they want to go to Sea Pines and have a great time, why don't they make a bridge from Bluffton to Sea Pines?" she asked.
What we know definitively is that the eastbound span of the Mackay bridge, the first link built in 1956, is structurally deficient and will be replaced at a cost of about $40 million.
SCDOT proposed six alternatives at a public meeting Sept. 19 on the island. These are the summaries:
• No. 1: Build a new eastbound Mackay Creek bridge south of the existing bridge; recondition and widen the existing westbound Mackay bridge; and recondition and possibly widen the Skull Creek bridges.
• No. 2: Build a new bridge north of the existing westbound Mackay bridge; recondition the existing westbound bridge and convert it to eastbound traffic; use the newly constructed bridge for westbound traffic over Mackay Creek; and recondition and possibly widen the Skull Creek bridges.
• No. 3: Build two new eastbound bridges south of the existing alignments (one over Mackay and one over Skull); recondition and widen Mackay; recondition existing Skull Creek bridges and convert only westbound traffic
• No. 4: Replace and-or remove all four existing bridges with one new bridge south of the existing alignment; build a new access to Pinckney and Haigh; and use existing alignment east of the new bridges.
• No. 5: Build two new eastbound bridges south of the existing; recondition and widen westbound bridges; and improve access to Pinckney and Haigh; and utilize the existing transmission line easement for U.S. 278 running from Jenkins Island through Spanish Wells Road.
• No. 6: Replace and-or remove all four existing bridges with one new bridge south of the existing alignment; build new accesses to Pinckney and Haigh; and utilize the existing transmission line easement from Jenkins Island through Spanish Wells Road.
"The alternatives are not set in stone," Johnson said. "They could be mixed and matched."
SCDOT expects to announce its decision in the fall of 2020. Before construction can begin, the environmental process and right-of-way acquisition, expected to begin in 2021, must be completed. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2023 and will take four to five years to complete.
SCDOT estimates the cost of replacing all four bridges in the corridor with one additional lane in each direction to be $240 million. Funding would come from federal, state and local sources.
"Additional evaluation and studies will occur with the six reasonable alternatives to include traffic performance, delineated wetlands, etc.," said Craig Winn, project manager for SCDOT.
Moving forward, Johnson's committee will "dig into the pros and cons of each alternative" and continue its outreach effort with educational presentations about the project. The committee held six meetings at various communities over the past two months and will continue to do so. Sometime next year it will forward its recommendation to the town council.
Council will then forward its recommendation to the state.
Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.