After more than a decade of planning, years of construction and controversy, multiple delays and millions spent, drivers will soon use the Bluffton Parkway flyover.
The $45 million project, designed to provide an alternate route from the Hilton Head Island bridges through Bluffton, is scheduled to open to traffic July 15. It is expected to stand for 75 to 100 years.
We are getting down to the nitty-gritty now.
Beaufort County traffic engineering director Colin Kinton
The 4,200-foot-long flyover will allow drivers to avoid an oft-congested stretch of U.S. 278 just west of the bridges.
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But questions remain as to whether the county’s largest infrastructure project in two decades will actually help drivers get on and off the island or simply shift traffic jams to new locations. And some still say it’s an eyesore that is a poor fit for Hilton Head.
An alternate route
The project is expected to cut the daily traffic of roughly 53,000 vehicles on U.S. 278 near the Hilton Head Island bridges by about 25 percent.
“Anytime there is a crash (on U.S. 278 near the bridges), traffic comes to an absolute standstill,” said county traffic engineering director Colin Kinton earlier this month. “(The flyover) should help alleviate that.”
Instead, that Hilton Head-bound traffic will be diverted onto Bluffton Parkway — a situation which is raising concerns.
While Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka says she is “excited that (the flyover) is finally finished,” she is “a little nervous about the extra traffic” on the parkway.
Mainly, Sulka said, she is concerned that the additional cars will make it difficult for residents of neighborhoods and apartment complexes along Bluffton Parkway to make the turn out of their communities during high-traffic periods.
I’m a little nervous about the extra traffic.
Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka
Bluffton resident Rory Ferguson echoed Sulka’s sentiments.
“Bluffton Parkway is not really a great road for high-capacity traffic, but we will just have to see” whether the flyover simply shifts traffic jams from U.S. 278 to the parkway, he said last week.
Hilton Head Island town manager Steve Riley said he has heard similar concerns from residents of Windmill Harbor, the neighborhood that sits at the base of the bridges on the island.
Kinton said the county will begin staggering stoplights — creating gaps in traffic — so residents of Windmill Harbor will have an easier time getting onto U.S. 278 and drivers coming off the island will be less likely to get backed up near Moss Creek.
Additionally, a new traffic signal has been installed at Buckingham Plantation Drive in Bluffton and will be turned on when the flyover opens. But no additional signals are planned along Bluffton Parkway.
Josh Gruber, Beaufort County’s deputy administrator, said the improvements are adequate.
“The traffic patterns and volumes through this area have been studied to a fine, fine detail,” he said.
A merging headache?
Some residents, including Ferguson, are questioning whether traffic on U.S. 278 and the flyover will be able to efficiently merge onto the bridge to Hilton Head.
Riley said he’s heard a similar worry from those on both Hilton Head and the mainland. “But I think people will generally figure out merging pretty quickly after a short adjustment period,” he said.
Eastbound drivers on the flyover must speed up to 55 mph and merge onto U.S. 278.
“This will be no different than any other on-ramp or off-ramp that drivers will experience anywhere else in the state,” Gruber said. “There is nothing unique about this.”
But the look of the flyover is a first for the area. Throughout the years of planning, residents repeatedly said the urban look of the flyover doesn’t fit with the area’s scenic vistas.
“It’s ugly,” wrote Facebook user Lauren Ruth, responding to a recent post by The Island Packet that asked readers to share their thoughts on the project. “You have ruined our beautiful scenic island. We are just another town now with ugly roads.”
Poster Carly Love agreed: “It’s hideous! Hilton Head is nowhere near as beautiful as it was.”
Bluffton resident Len Cyrlin was kinder last week, saying the sight of the flyover as cars are “coming off the island is not very attractive.”
Making the flyover more aesthetically pleasing has been discussed in detail for years, Gruber said. Ultimately, paint colors were selected to match the blue of the Lowcountry sky.
Riley provided another counterpoint to those who say the flyover is a hulking concrete beast of a roadway.
“For those in the passenger seat, you’re going to get some great views of the water and the marshes” as vehicles leave the island via the flyover, he said.
Landscaping around the bridges could happen in the months to come.
“Once (the flyover construction is) done, we will take a look and see what needs to be done to make sure it looks good,” Riley said.
Despite the concerns, Riley said, ultimately, the flyover will be seen as a “long-term benefit” for the island, Bluffton and Beaufort County.
Years in the making, plagued by delays
It’s a benefit that has been a long time in the making.
Beaufort County and S.C. Department of Transportation engineers have been studying and planning for the flyover for 14 years, Kinton said.
Construction of the project, led by contractor R.R. Dawson Bridge Co., has been underway for the last three years.
“Obviously, this a huge project in terms of scale and scope,” Kinton said. “But we are getting down to the nitty-gritty now.”
Over the next week or two, crews will finish paving the westbound approach to the flyover, build barrier walls, stripe pavement and clean up the work site, he said.
The project hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
The flyover, the largest single public works project in Beaufort County since the $81 million Cross Island Parkway was finished in 1997, began with a $36 million construction contract with R.R. Dawson and initially was scheduled to be completed last November.
That contract was paid mainly with revenue from an increase in sales tax that was approved by voters in 2006.
A decade later, the total cost of the flyover is roughly $45 million. That figure includes the price of construction, rights-of-way purchases, utility infrastructure relocation and safety inspections, said county chief financial officer Alicia Holland.
It represents only a portion of the cost for a series of improvements to a stretch of Bluffton Parkway known as Phase 5a — which includes the flyover — that total more than $80 million.
Nearly $66 million in capital improvement sales tax revenue was approved for Phase 5a projects. The remaining balance came from federal grants and road impact fees, Holland said.
On several occasions, the county was forced to shell out cash to solve unexpected problems during the flyover construction:
▪ In the marsh outside greater Bluffton, R.R. Dawson crews found in 2013 they would have to extend almost two dozen of the pilings supporting the flyover ramps up to 18 and 19 feet deeper in order to put the bridges’ foundations on solid ground. The changes added nearly $500,000 to the project.
▪ Later that year, project managers discovered that Palmetto Electric Cooperative needed to relocate overhead power lines along the eastbound shoulder of U.S. 278, where the eastbound flyover ramp will meet the highway, at a cost to the county of more than $250,000.
▪ Last summer, challenges building in the marsh and S.C. Department of Transportation requests for more paving improvements on the mainland side of the project resulted in county leaders bailing on a November completion date.
Even down the final stretch, delays continued.
The revised completion date was June 30, but that was pushed back after rains associated with Tropical Storms Bonnie and Colin drenched the construction site earlier this month.
“The recent storm events pushed some paving back,” Kinton said earlier this month. “The ground (became) so saturated that work slowed down.”
Beaufort County and Hilton Head Island are seeking millions of dollars in capital sales tax revenues to be used for future road projects around the bridges.
County Council will hold a final vote Monday that, if approved, would authorize adding a referendum to the ballot for November’s election. That referendum would allow county voters to choose whether they want to add a 1 percent sales tax to raise about $120 million for specific infrastructure projects.
On that projects list are proposed improvements to roadways on Pinckney Island and Jenkins Island, as well as along a stretch of U.S. 278 from Jenkins Island to Squire Pope Road.
Ultimately, a comprehensive solution to traffic problems coming on and off Hilton Head Island will require addressing the actual bridges, local leaders say.
The average number of vehicles crossing the bridges has increased by about 7,700 vehicles per day from 2002 to 2014. That’s a leap from 45,500 to 53,200 vehicles each day, according to the S.C. Department of Transportation.
The bridges may be insufficient to meet future traffic demands projected for the next 10 to 15 years — never mind the traffic jams a hurricane evacuation would cause, according to a 2002 Beaufort County study.
Discussion between the county and the state about replacing or widening the bridges is ongoing and will continue long into the future, Gruber said.