County, towns launching regional transportation-planning group

cconley@islandpacket.comJune 2, 2012 

Beaufort County, Bluffton and Hilton Head Island are uniting to form a panel to coordinate the region's transportation planning.

Although it's presenting those local governments with some initial challenges, the federally mandated effort should yield positive results, said Colin Kinton, county transportation engineer.

"It will provide transparency to the transportation planning and implementation process," he said. "It may not mean additional dollars for us, but I think it will provide more control over how those dollars are spent." It also could ensure those dollars keep flowing.

Federal law requires "urbanized areas" with at least 50,000 people to form a metropolitan transportation organization to guide future road and highway projects.

After the 2010 census, an area that includes Hilton Head, most of Bluffton and parts of unincorporated Beaufort County south of the Broad River surpassed that 50,000 threshold. The area is home to about 69,000 people.

The region encompassing Port Royal, Beaufort and other communities in the northern part of the county has about 49,000 people. As a result, it is not required to form its own panel. It might be invited to join the southern county group, Kinton said. Current panel members will make that decision by September, he said.

The panel will develop a long-range transportation plan and a method for reviewing and rating transportation projects that qualify for federal money. It also will consider ways to improve the existing transportation system, according to a fact sheet provided by the county. The group's policy-making body will largely consist of local elected officials.

Federal rules require the panel to be set up by March.

Planning officials from Bluffton, Hilton Head and the county have held preliminary discussions on how the organization should work and what rules it must follow.

The process hasn't always been clear.

"We got hit with this about a month ago," said Jill Foster, Hilton Head deputy director of community development. "We are required to do this, but we are still scrambling to figure out how it should be set up ... (and) what the boundaries should be.

"We are still trying to figure out the pluses and minuses."

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