Last month, I stood onsite with many others to celebrate the opening of the Bluffton Parkway flyover. This flyover will reduce traffic using Hwy. 278 near the Hilton Head Island bridges by about 25 percent and is a key part of a longer-range plan to provide island residents an alternate evacuation route (which, of course, is still dependent upon extending the Bluffton Parkway from Hwy. 170 to Interstate 95).
And thereby hangs a tale: the flyover, though important, is just one piece of a larger Hilton Head Island infrastructure puzzle. The good news, though, is that plans are already under way to ensure the remaining pieces fall into place. And officials at Beaufort County – notably, Gary Kubic (administrator), Robert McFee (engineering and infrastructure director) and Colin Kinton (traffic engineer) – are to be commended for this foresight.
Next up for this area, with construction anticipated to begin in 2021, are widening Hwy. 278 on Jenkins Island, addressing the ingress-egress situation at Windmill Harbor and improving access to amenities on Jenkins Island; widening Hwy. 278 from Jenkins Island to Squire Pope Road; replacing the eastbound two-lane span of the Mackay Creek (aka Karl S. Bowers) Bridge with a new three-lane span; and providing safe access to Pinckney Island.
Following that, with a projected start date of 2026, are widening from two lanes to three the westbound span of the Mackay Creek Bridge and widening the Skull Creek (aka J. Wilton Graves) Bridge from two lanes in each direction to three. (Note: While the plans currently are to widen, rather than replace, these three bridge spans, such could change depending on the outcome of further engineering studies.)
Rather than handling these interrelated projects piecemeal, county officials and the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) are wisely treating them as a whole; they intend to seek a single Environmental Assessment encompassing all of the improvements. This approach will save millions of dollars and accelerate the completion timetable.
The replacement of the eastbound span of the Mackay Creek Bridge ranks second on the SCDOT bridge replacement list and, in terms of public safety, is the highest priority. Constructed in 1956 and having a design-life of 50 years, this is the oldest of four Hilton Head Island bridge spans. The other three bridge spans were built in the 1980s and, as noted above, may be expanded rather than replaced.
Timely addressing these four bridge spans is critical. The average number of vehicles crossing these bridges has jumped from 47,600 in 2009 to 54,700 in 2015, and will doubtless continue to increase as Hilton Head Island maintains and improves its reputation as a premiere resort destination. As the island’s state senator, I consider this a top priority.
Each of these transportation projects, of course, carries a substantial price tag. The estimated cost of replacing the eastbound span of the Mackay Creek Bridge is $44 million, and a 2002 study commissioned by the county pegs the cost of expanding the remaining three bridge spans at between $80 million to $160 million (though county officials now advise the actual cost may approach $200 million).
In the last legislative session, $200 million was set aside on a recurring basis to amortize approximately $3 billion in bonds to be used for resurfacing interstates and fixing structurally deficient bridges. Members of the Beaufort County Legislative Delegation are working with SCDOT officials to ensure an equitable portion of this goes to repairing and-or replacing Hilton Head Island’s bridges, and I am confident we will be successful.
State revenues alone, however, will not be sufficient; such will need to be supplemented with federal and local dollars, and those go hand in hand. Fair or not, the reality is state and federal agencies are more likely to help localities that help themselves. At some point in the future, I think a local-option sales tax referendum that is narrowly targeted to transportation infrastructure should be put to the people for a vote.
Finally, as with anything of this scope and magnitude, it is important that residents be both informed and involved, especially in the design process. The transportation issues now being planned will directly impact their safety and quality of life for decades to come, and I look forward to ensuring they are part of the debate.
Tom Davis is the State Senator for South Carolina District 46, which covers portions of Beaufort and Jasper counties.