Median closing leaves few options for St. Gregory parishioners

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comOctober 11, 2013 

A median crossover at the entrance to St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church in greater Bluffton has been closed because of the U.S. 278 widening project, eliminating immediate access to the church for some parishioners.

The crossover was the only way for parishioners to arrive from or leave on eastbound U.S. 278 without making a U-turn. A plan to build a frontage road that would have prevented the traffic problem has been tied up in litigation for years.

"The only concern we have is the safety of our parishioners," said Monsignor Ronald Cellini, the church's pastor. "It's more safety than convenience."

This week, construction crews shifted traffic to the two newly paved, innermost lanes of the highway in the construction zone that stretches from S.C. 170 to Simmonsville Road, according to Joe Ruoto, St. Gregory parish manager. As part of those shifts, the median crossing was closed Sunday night.

The crossing was supposed to stay open for St. Gregory's parishioners until a frontage road was built, connecting the church to intersections at Berkeley Hall Plantation, the Bluffton Township Fire Station and a new median crossover on U.S. 278, according to Brent Rewis, Lowcountry program manager for the state Department of Transportation.

With the lane shifts this week, the crossing no longer has enough room to serve the traffic in and out of the church, Rewis said. The new median and frontage-road entrance were supposed to serve those displaced eastbound parishioners, Rewis said.

However, construction of that frontage road is being delayed by a lawsuit, county spokeswoman Joy Nelson said.

Berkeley Hall residents challenged the 2007 frontage-road plan because they did not like the configuration of the road's western section, which would connect Berkeley Hall and the church. The matter has been in litigation since then, county attorney Josh Gruber said.

The county has been negotiating a settlement for several months, Gruber added. As soon as a settlement is reached, the county can open the project for bids and hire a firm to build the frontage road, he said.

"That really is the last thing we're waiting on, is to get an agreement with Berkeley Hall in place," he said.

For now, church visitors arriving from or leaving to the east must turn around at stoplights at the entrances to Berkeley Hall at Buckwalter Parkway or at Rose Hill Plantation at White Oaks Circle, Ruoto said.

The church also suggests parishioners make safe U-turns at Eagle's Pointe Drive or Pinckney Colony Road, Ruoto said. The suggestions were announced at services last weekend and went out in the church bulletin.

The median crossover across from St. Gregory's entrance will remain closed until the U.S. 278 widening project is finished, but DOT planners are reviewing ways to reopen it if a frontage road is not completed by then, Rewis said.

"It's just a bad set of circumstances, and we're trying to make good on our promises and assurances that we'll keep U.S. 278 safe," he said.

The widening project is scheduled to be finished in mid- to late November, but it has been a headache for the church's 8,400 parishioners and St. Gregory the Great School's 210 students, Ruoto said.

"The bottom line is, it's a traffic mess out there as far as we're concerned," he said. "We're just hoping they can start this frontage road."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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