Graphics such as this one highlight issues of SCDOT’s plans for the Highway 278 redesign, based on resident Steven Baer’s research and opinions, which are shared by 7,600 petition signees.

The discussion, dilemma, and debate about the proposed replacement and redesign of the bridges and route from Moss Creek to Spanish Wells Road on the island will continue at a March 3 public hearing, set for 4 to 7 p.m. at the Hilton Head Recreation Center, 20 Wilborn Road.

Open for discussion are proposed modifications being suggested for a number of items in the recommended preferred alternative original design package.

Craig Winn, the project engineer with the South Carolina Department of Transportation, announced on social media, “We heard your concerns from the public hearing and have proposed modifications to the Recommended Preferred Alternative as a result.”

Responses to the update provided by contracted landscape architect MKSK were on two levels. The preliminary responses are based on the meeting held between the Beaufort County (County Administrator Eric Greenway and Assistant County Administrator Jared Fralix), SCDOT (Secretary Christy Hall, Deputy Secretary Leland Colvin and Program Manager Craig Winn), and the Town of Hilton Head Island (Town Manager Marc Orlando, Mayor John McCann, and Senior Advisor to the Town Manager Shawn Colin) on Oct. 14, 2021.

Additional responses are based on further environmental NEPA evaluations, traffic evaluations and engineering design performed since the October meeting.

“We have been working closely with the Town of Hilton Head and will continue to do so throughout this process,” said Eric Greenway, Beaufort County Administrator. “We look forward to continuing this partnership, and addressing as many of the concerns as economically and structurally feasible to upgrade the Islands access to the mainland.”

Of the 26 recommendations made in Alternative 4A, aka the “Recommended Preferred Alternative,” the county supported changing three of the most contentious points. Island residents were vehemently against a proposed U-turn at Old Wild Horse Road, and the elimination of left-turns prior to the intersection at Spanish Wells.

The county’s preliminary response was to provide traditional turn lanes and intuitive intersection configurations throughout Stoney; eliminate confusing SCDOT U-turns; and eliminate left turns and traffic introduction onto Old Wild Horse Road.

While the traffic performance of each of the options causes decreased level of service at the intersections, additional travel time and delays in the peak direction, and additional delays on the side streets, the performance does meet the minimum standard of a level of service D. A route is designed to accommodate a certain hourly volume of traffic at a selected level of service. In both options for an urban route, level C is desirable, but D is the minimum acceptable.

In a statement from the Coalition of Island Neighbors, co-founders Risa Sreden Prince and Patsy Brison also expressed the hope that Hilton Head Town Council will insist that the needs of Island residents are included in the final plans by both with SCDOT and the county in the once-in-a-generation project.

“COIN continues to advocate for our base alternative. COIN’s base alternative includes replacement of the Mackay Creek bridge span, make needed safety upgrades for intersections, including intelligent traffic signal management, safer access to Pinckney Island and Windmill Harbor, and improved safety, aesthetics, and access in the Stoney Historic Neighborhood without excessively widening the 278 footprint,” read the statement. “COIN supports some of the MKSK aesthetic and safety improvements, and the Stoney neighborhood enhancements.”

The community group was formed to recognize, evaluate and address issues which affect island residents, and advocating for improvements to the island community. At the October meeting, members were among those who were most vocal about preserving and minimizing the impact the project would have on the Stoney community.

“COIN remains disappointed by the lack of support from SCDOT of COIN’s base alternative and MKSK aesthetic, safety, and Stoney community improvements. Frankly, it is highly surprising and disappointing that Beaufort County Council officials and staff did not effectively advocate Hilton Head residents’ Guiding Principles and requirements,” read the statement.

Among the items with which the county did not agree was the construction of two bridges rather than one six-lane bridge. The preliminary arguments against a double span included an estimated 10% to 15% increase in cost to the tune of around $30 million that would be funded locally rather than through SCDOT or by the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB), not to mention the impact on the environment. Such construction would also significantly increase construction time.

One vocal opponent of much of the project as it stands is Hilton Head resident Steven M. Baer. A petition he initiated on change.org – Reject and rethink SCDOT plans – has gotten more than 7,600 signatures, which is more than 20% of the island’s residents at least age 18.

“It appears that SCDOT plans will route a 39% expansion of traffic through at least three traffic lights and unplanned missing links to the Cross Island Parkway and Local 278. They have studied one intersection at a time without a real understanding of the end-end flows and impacts of the missing pieces,” he said. “This is an almost guaranteed formula for disappointing performance and increasing costs. Compounding this, two local politicians actively blocked a truly Independent Quantitative Review.

“There is intense public displeasure with the current plan from over 7600 petition signers – enough, I believe, to swing the November Town elections,” he added. “I hope that the current officeholders have the sense of decency and fair play to not make irrevocable commitments for this kludge before then.”

Following the public hearing, a joint public meeting between Hilton Head and the Beaufort County Council – which has been agreed to in principle, according to a county press release – will be held immediately following the public hearing.

Those who cannot attend the meeting but wish to have input may view the documents online and make comments on the report that was released Feb. 24. Visit scdot278corridor.com.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.