Beaufort County should give road project another look

info@islandpacket.comDecember 18, 2012 

Circumstances in Beaufort County today are very different from 2006 when a list of road projects to be paid for with a 1 percent local sales tax was first compiled for voter approval.

Six years later, we've collected the $152 million to be raised from the tax, but other revenue sources, especially road impact fees paid by developers, have fallen short, to the tune of about $30 million.

We don't have the $25 million to pay for a new section of Bluffton Parkway between Buck Island Road and Buckwalter Parkway, and we're about $5 million short in paying for a flyover section to connect the parkway with U.S. 278 at the bridges to Hilton Head Island.

County officials say they aren't considering reinstating the sales tax. That's good. Project re-evaluation should be the next step.

The flyover project is the easier of the two to solve, given the relatively small portion the county needs to come up with for the $45 million project. But the parkway realignment should be looked at in the context of the county's finances today, other potential uses of $25 million and development trends in the area.

Very telling is the shortfall in road impact fees. The fees are paid for by developers and are based on a project's potential impact on the county's road system. The county had anticipated collecting about $54.5 million in fees to help pay for the sales tax projects. Instead, they have collected about $4.5 million.

That difference signals a huge change in the market, especially in southern Beaufort County, and suggests a reassessment of the Bluffton Parkway realignment is warranted. Many fewer homes and businesses than anticipated means far less traffic than anticipated.

The strongest argument for the realignment has been to provide a better route for hurricane evacuation using the Bluffton Parkway. That would include extending the parkway from S.C. 170 to Interstate 95 and building a new exit there. All of that is very expensive and funding is not anywhere near fruition. Storm evacuation also is a big argument for using a flyover to move traffic from U.S. 278 to Bluffton Parkway.

What we don't need is the type of road "planning" that brought us the parkway's current configuration. Its mile-long overlap with Buckwalter Parkway is a result of development negotiations that took place in 2001 between developers and Bluffton officials.

Bluffton first negotiated a route for the Bluffton Parkway that ran through the southern portion of the Buckwalter tract as part of a development agreement with International Paper Co. Later, International Paper sold the land to a group that included John Reed. In 2001, Bluffton Mayor Hank Johnston said the developers approached Bluffton about routing the parkway to the north. The Beaufort County Transportation Advisory Group approved the route change.

In recent years, prompted by Reed and Bluffton officials, we've looked at rerouting the realignment's approach to Buckwalter Parkway at the section leading to S.C. 170. In September 2011, Bluffton officials agreed to pay $89,000 to redo the studies necessary to build the road as a result of the proposed modification. The work is expected to completed in March.

County officials have indicated an obligation to go ahead with the realignment project because voters approved it in the 2006 sales tax referendum. That's the kind of logic we heard to justify moving ahead with the Whale Branch Early College High School when enrollment numbers and projected growth didn't warrant its construction.

Voters are asked to approve a group of projects in these ballot questions; we don't vote project by project. A "yes" vote should not be interpreted as a ringing endorsement for any one project on the list. If costs go up, revenue goes down or market changes indicate we don't need to build something, officials ought to be able to adjust plans. If this is about carrying out voters' wishes, we suspect shelving a project that we don't have the money for nor an urgent need for would be many voters' wish.

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