The return of bumper-to-bumper traffic on U.S. 278 heading onto Hilton Head Island may be an unwelcome sight for some local residents but Beaufort County officials say the weekend traffic tie-ups may signal a more robust tourist season.
In recent years, improvements to U.S. 278 and the construction of parallel roads in Bluffton seemed to have eased congestion for travelers flocking to Hilton Head during the height of tourist season. But Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner says heavier traffic on the road is back. "We have seen an increase in traffic this year," Tanner said. "It's called summertime tourism on Hilton Head. It's always been that way. People around here know that between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, there's going to be traffic on 278.
"That's a big check-in period for the hotels and condos down on the island and all of those people end up on 278 at the same time," Tanner said. "It used to be a helluva lot worse."
And it's not necessarily bad news.
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"It's a sign of prosperity," Tanner said.
Charlie Clark, spokeswoman for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, said occupancy rates on the island this year are up two percent from last and include 5 and 6 percent gains in April and May respectively.
Clark said the island's visitors rarely complain to the chamber about traffic getting onto Hilton Head.
"When you look at where our visitors are coming from -- places like New Jersey and Atlanta -- traffic is a relative term," Clark said.
RELIEVING THE PRESSURE
U.S. 278 has been widened to six lanes from the entrance to Moss Creek to Simmonsville Road. A project to continue the widening to the highway's intersection with S.C. 170 was delayed in February 2010.
Other projects nearby -- mainly construction of the Bluffton Parkway early in the new century -- also relieved pressure on U.S. 278.
More recently, Simmonsville Road and S.C. 46, which run perpendicular to U.S. 278, have been widened. Additionally, a frontage road parallel to U.S. 278 now connects Plantation Business Park to Simmonsville and Buck Island roads.
Work also is under way to extend Bluffton Parkway from Burnt Church Road to near the bridges to Hilton Head.
And more traffic relief could be on the way.
The S.C. Department of Transportation will begin accepting bids Aug. 11 to complete the U.S. 278 widening that stalled in 2010, according to the Beaufort County website.
The county also is trying to figure out a route to realign and straighten the Bluffton Parkway between Buck Island Road and S.C. 170.
Despite all those efforts, Beaufort County Administrator Gary Kubic said there is only so much local and state officials can do to ease traffic from the mainland to Hilton Head.
"You're still going to have the basic problem of there being a choke point because the (J. Wilton Graves Bridge) is only two lanes," Kubic said. "You have two lanes that go into three than go back down to two when you go onto Hilton Head. It's going to slow down traffic. You're not going to have a continuous flow of traffic. That's the way it's going to be for a while."
A POSITIVE SIGN
Both Kubic and Tanner see the heavier traffic this season as a sign of an improving tourism economy.
"You can put dollar signs on all of those vehicles headed for Hilton Head," Tanner said. "That traffic is good for our economy."
And some tourists don't seem to mind the traffic slowdowns.
Among them is the Glanville family of Paramus, N.J. The slow-moving traffic on U.S. 278 is neither a dealbreaker or much of an obstacle.
"This isn't traffic," Doug Glanville said Saturday as he refueled the family's minivan at a Bluffton gas station. "You're pretty much always moving, there's no honking and swearing and there doesn't seem to be a lot of road rage. Come up to New Jersey and we'll show you some traffic. I'm on vacation with my family so if it takes me a little longer to get to Hilton Head, it takes me a little longer to get to Hilton Head.
"It's not going to stop me from coming."
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.