Beaufort County has finally agreed to Bluffton's proposed change for the Bluffton Parkway project to build a more direct route between Buck Island Road and Buckwalter Parkway.
But don't expect construction to begin anytime soon. There's no money for the 2.3-mile stretch that's expected to cost as much as $25 million to build. If state or federal money isn't forthcoming, then local officials should leave the plans on the shelf. It's hard to justify spending local money for the project when traffic seems to be moving just fine without it.
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. But that, too, is very expensive and funding nowhere near fruition. In fact, one could argue no money -- federal, state or local -- should be spent until we're sure a Bluffton Parkway that extends to I-95 is needed.
The recent revision moves the new route about 350 feet closer to the intersection of the two parkways near Buckwalter Place. It is expected to result in developer University Investments donating rights of way. Company principal John Reed wanted the change in order to develop property his company owns near the intersection. That donation comes if the developer and officials can agree on a route. In 2011, the town estimated $5.7 million could be shaved off the project's rights-of-way cost when it brought the idea to the county. The county's route was set in 2008.
A more direct route for Bluffton Parkway was on the list of projects to be paid for in large part by a 1 percent sales tax that voters approved in 2006. The sales tax, which ended in September 2012, raised about $152 million, but road impact fees fell far short. The county had anticipated collecting about $54.5 million in fees to help pay for the sales tax projects. Instead, they collected about $4.5 million.
The Bluffton Parkway project was one of several on the list that got hit by the shortfall. The county is moving ahead with the flyover project to connect the parkway to U.S. 278 near the bridges to Hilton Head after getting $15 million from the state Department of Transportation.
The project to widen S.C. 170 between U.S. 278 and S.C. 46, also underway, got $25 million from the State Infrastructure Bank in February 2012. That was part of an $86 million request from the county, which was granted but not immediately funded several years ago. The request also included money for the new Bluffton Parkway route.
With agreement on a revised route settled now, Bluffton and Beaufort County have a stronger case to make to state transportation officials that the project is "shovel ready." That helped get funding for the flyover. Other tasks still need to be done before the project is ready to bid out, but the route revision was a major roadblock. And if Bluffton's right that this is an economic development driver, the town has another argument to make.
In the meantime, motorists seem to be getting along without the more direct route.