Twelve years ago, Bluffton and Beaufort County leaders opened a section of road touted as the future of the rapidly expanding town.
Back then, Bluffton Parkway was just a stretch of asphalt two-thirds of a mile long.
Today, the parkway extends 10 miles between S.C. 170 and Buckingham Plantation Drive, parallel to U.S. 278. Construction of a nearly three-mile section to connect the parkway to U.S. 278 and the bridges to Hilton Head Island with a flyover is expected to be completed in 2015.
However, one final section, approved in 2006, remains unbuilt.
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Known as Bluffton Parkway Phase 5B, the project would eliminate a "dogleg" where Buckwalter Parkway divides the road, interrupting its flow to S.C. 170. Scarce funding for the 2 1/2 -mile Phase 5B has left it in limbo.
After the failure of a proposed county sales-tax referendum this year that would have included funding for the long-desired realignment between Buck Island Road and Buckwalter Parkway, town and county officials hope one more attempt to wrest money from the state will pay off.
Otherwise, it will remain unclear when Phase 5B will be built.
County and town leaders say Phase 5B is needed so that the Bluffton Parkway can eventually be extended, without interruption, to Interstate 95. Such an extension would open up development along the corridor and create an alternative hurricane evacuation route for southern Beaufort County.
In 2006, an early version of Phase 5B was included in a $152 million, countywide sales tax plan approved that November.
However, the recession that followed led to an unexpected drop in impact fees, which are charged to developers for each home they build to pay for roads and other services. Other funding sources also dwindled, along with the sales-tax revenue expected to fund the approved road projects. As funding ran out, the county reprioritized, choosing more pressing projects, county administrator Gary Kubic said.
After Phase 5B was delayed, the county applied to the S.C. State Infrastructure Bank, which doles out money for transportation projects around the state. Phase 5B was included on a $130 million application in 2008, along with several other road projects the county could no longer afford, Kubic said. The State Infrastructure Bank told the county to pick its top road priority.
The county chose to widen S.C. 170.
Phase 5B was again put on hold.
Later, its proposed route was altered by the county at the request of Bluffton officials, to bring the road closer to an area owned by developer John Reed that could be developed to boost the town's tax base.
The possibility of funding for Phase 5B arose again this year. Beaufort County was considering a sales tax referendum, and the straightening project was at the top of both the town and county's road wish-list.
However, in June, County Council decided not to hold the sales-tax referendum, saying more time was needed to vet the projects before they went before voters.
Now, town of Bluffton and county are again returning to the State Infrastructure Bank.
Town officials told Bluffton Town Council members Aug. 15 they were preparing an application to the bank with the help of the county.
But there's no guarantee the application will be approved, nor any indication when it will be considered. There are no deadlines or schedules for the infrastructure bank to act on applications, chairman Jim Leonard said. The bank board meets only when there is enough activity for it to be needed.
Infrastructure bank funding has to be approved by the legislature, and a new proposal may not be introduced until 2016 or 2017, Kubic said.
The application could also be a long shot.
A more urgent need to repair damaged and aging roads around the state will likely tie up money the state could offer for Phase 5B, state Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton, said. Those projects total $29 billion, and the S.C. Department of Transportation has requested $700 million a year for the next 20 years from the infrastructure bank, Newton said.
If the Phase 5B application is rejected, it could be years before the parkway is realigned. The county lacks the bond capacity to raise money for the project, and there are no other viable sources of state and federal funding, Kubic said.
With funding for Phase 5B in question, the proposed extension of Bluffton Parkway to Interstate 95 also is in limbo.
Kubic said the route to the interstate is being designed by Beaufort County's engineering department.
The extension through Jasper County would create another direct link to the interstate, offering an alternate hurricane evacuation route for Hilton Head Island. It could shorten evacuation time by hours, Kubic said.
An extended parkway would also create an avenue for economic development, opening up thousands of acres along the way to commercial and residential construction, county officials say.
Such development, however, would likely be years away if the current Bluffton Parkway is any indication of the future.
In 2000, nearly 5,600 acres were mapped out for residential and commercial development in the parkway's western sections, but much of that area remains undeveloped. County and town officials say the Great Recession is to blame.
"The development hasn't followed suit," said SRS Engineering project engineer Todd Salvagin, who conducted traffic studies on Bluffton Parkway during its initial construction. "In some of the neighborhoods they were discussing in the magnitude of 5,000 homes. It gives you an example of what's changed."
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.