Despite concerns two elevated flyovers could spoil the look of Hilton Head Island's gateway, Town Council voted Tuesday to go along with the project.
Voting 6-0 to support the sweeping concrete ramps, the council also asked Beaufort County to keep looking for a less obtrusive solution for linking U.S. 278 with the Bluffton Parkway. Council member Kim Likins was absent.
If no better solution can be found, the council wants the county to strongly consider landscaping and a facade to blend the bridges with the character of the island's entrance.
The issue has led to intense debate. Some say the flyovers are a necessary evil that will make evacuations smoother and keep tourist traffic flowing.
Others believe they are unnecessary and spoil the natural beauty that attracts tourists.
County officials say they will look at ways to make the flyovers more visually pleasing, but that did not sit well with some on Town Council.
"You can't make chicken salad out of chicken s
," Lee Edwards said during the meeting. "I see very little gain to what to me is a drastic change to the entrance of our island. ... Two big flyovers with some window dressing are still two large flyovers. We need better for Hilton Head Island."
The flyovers and an extension of Bluffton Parkway would provide a more efficient hurricane-evacuation route off the island, town traffic engineer Darrin Shoemaker told council. The project also would ease congestion on U.S. 278 in Bluffton, diverting as much as 30 percent of traffic off the highway there, Shoemaker said.
The project, however, would do nothing to address periodic bottlenecks on Hilton Head, going from six lanes on the mainland to four lanes on the island's bridges, Edwards pointed out.
The bridges -- expected to cost about $31 million -- would start at Bluffton Parkway's intersection with Buckingham Plantation Drive and extend over the marsh between The Gatherings and Buckingham Landing. Ramps would tie in to either side of a Fording Island Road extension leading to the foot of the Karl S. Bowers Bridge to Hilton Head.
The project had sat dormant because of lack of money, but was recently revived when the County Council was offered $15 million from the state that would have to be matched locally.
County Councilman Stu Rodman presented an alternate plan Tuesday to replace the flyovers with an overpass. Rodman said it achieves the same effect at less cost, less harm to the environment and less disruption to scenic views.
Instead of a flyover for cars heading off-island to get to the Bluffton Parkway, Rodman's plan would elevate part of eastbound U.S. 278 before the Karl S. Bowers Bridge for westbound U.S. 278 traffic to connect to the parkway at grade.
Bluffton Parkway traffic would still merge onto U.S. 278 eastbound, but would be done at grade without a flyover by eliminating a median cross-over at Fording Island Road.
The road would instead tie into Bluffton Parkway.
Town Council did not endorse Rodman's plan, but several members, including Mayor Drew Laughlin, said it merits further investigation by the county.
S.C. DOT commissioner Craig Forrest of Bluffton, though, has warned that any changes could result in losing the grant.
The Beaufort Transportation Authority Group meets Thursday to recommend whether County Council accept the state money.
"It may not have immediate benefit to the island today, but may be necessary five to 10 years from now, when you have other components, such as taking Bluffton Parkway to Interstate 95," town manager Steve Riley said. "It's either build it now or you never build it. Long-term, you're going to wish you had it."
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead
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