Beaufort County leaders are plotting the course for a series of improvements along U.S. 278, but finding the cash — as much as $200 million — to pay for the projects remains a lingering challenge.
The projects are aimed at making the trip between greater Bluffton and Hilton Head Island a smoother, more pleasant experience for drivers, officials say.
Plans to enhance a four-mile corridor of U.S. 278 between Buckingham Plantation Drive and Squire Pope Road would including widening or replacing the Hilton Head Island bridge spans, adding traffic safety features, and widening the stretches of road from four lanes to six.
“Given the existing levels of traffic conditions we are seeing today and the anticipated amount of growth we are likely to see on Hilton Head over the next couple of years, the (traffic) capacity on those bridges is not what it needs to be,” deputy county attorney Josh Gruber told members if the Beaufort County Council earlier this week.
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The S.C. Department of Transportation plans to replace the eastbound span of the bridge over Mackay Creek, which is expected to cost about $44 million.
Before that can start, the state must a study of the potential environmental impact. County leaders have spent months lobbying to expand the scope of that study to include an assessment of other U.S. 278 improvements around the bridges.
The study “should not just be looking at one bridge, but taking a long look as to what ought to happen” along the entire corridor, Councilman Stu Rodman said at meeting of the county’s Public Facilities Committee earlier this week.
Gruber said by piggy-backing on the already planned environmental study, the state and county “can cost-share” the expense of the assessment.
The assessment — expected to take about three years to complete — is estimated to cost about $3 million.
The county — through an agreement with the Lowcountry Area Transportation Study, the region’s metropolitan planning organization tasked with administering federal transportation funds — would be responsible for $2 million of that total.
However, local taxpayers could end up on the hook for repaying those federal dollars should the county’s proposed U.S. 278 improvements fail to materialize once the SCDOT environmental assessment concludes.
Gruber said local leaders have negotiated an agreement with the state that gives the county until late 2020 to “explore multiple avenues for financing this project.”
A planned $51-million bond sale will provide nearly $10 million for road improvements in the Jenkins and Pinckney island areas, which are part of the corridor plan. Those improvements are aimed at making left-hand turns onto U.S. 278 safer.
Some aspects of the corridor improvement would have been paid for using revenue from a 1 percent sales tax increase shot down by county voters in November.
New ballot referendums could be brought forth in 2018 or 2020 to raise money for the projects. Other funding could come from state tax revenues or federal infrastructure grants, Gruber said.
County officials have expressed concerns about the potential for having to reimburse the $2 million for the SCDOT study, but most agree the urgent need for the road improvements outweighs the risk.
“This thing needs to move forward tomorrow,” Councilman Paul Sommerville said earlier this week.