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‘Our heritage is dying because of this road’: Hilton Head fears the future of U.S. 278

Beaufort County voters passed the referendum dubbed “the penny tax” in Tuesday’s midterm election, and Hilton Head Island Town Council immediately responded.

On Wednesday, the council voted unanimously to create a citizen committee to give input on one of the projects the tax will fund: the Hilton Head bridges and U.S. 278.

The project is managed by S.C. Department of Transportation, and there are no official alternatives yet.

The 1 percent increase in sales tax will help fund the study and improvement of both of those areas. Several groups on the island are concerned that SCDOT will widen the bridge, eradicating land owned by native islanders in the Stoney community.

Mayor David Bennett brought a resolution to Town Council that creates a seven-person committee of citizens to “work cooperatively with SCDOT to obtain and provide citizen input to the U.S. 278 environmental assessment and design alternatives.”

Town Council member Marc Grant amended the resolution to ensure that council could recommend citizens to the committee, which he said he would do as a representative of Ward 1 — a neighborhood directly affected, and in places bisected, by U.S. 278.

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Getting the word out

Grant told the Island Packet he goes door to door spreading information about the SCDOT project, but that having representatives on the committee will help “get information back to the community” in the Stoney neighborhood and other areas surrounding U.S. 278.

“We just want to make sure that they have input and that they don’t get railroaded,” Grant said about having native islander voices on the committee. “We don’t want people being pushed aside.”

Bennett said he placed the resolution on the agenda himself. He said that “especially with passage of the sales tax, the town should take the lead in shepherding this project.”

Grant said SCDOT needs to hear from “the real stakeholders” and create a solution that limits damage to historic communities.

“We want people to understand our culture and our heritage is dying because of this road and the overuse of this road,” he said.

Island residents fill a community input meeting in September to discuss Gullah-Geechee cultural preservation with the Town of Hilton Head’s newly-hired consultant. Residents frequently discussed their concerns about the widening of U.S. 278 at the meeting. Katherine Kokal, The Island Packet

Don’t expect traffic cones — yet

Residents and drivers are unlikely to see any big changes soon, though. The committee will have time to give input.

Assistant Town Manager Josh Gruber said it will be “five to six years at the earliest” that drivers on the Hilton Head bridges would start seeing physical changes, because the first step of the SCDOT project is completing an environmental study of the area.

The study of the U.S. 278 corridor between Moss Creek and Squire Pope Road is to develop alternatives, which will be subject to a public hearing in spring 2020.

According to SCDOT, that study will include the social impacts of any proposed alternatives.

Those alternatives could include widening the Hilton Head bridges, building a new bridge or rerouting traffic.

Bennett said the new committee would work to make recommendations to SCDOT and be involved “immediately and continually” in the environmental assessment process.

278 HH bridge backup.jpg
Can Hilton Head Island’s future be brighter than this scene of morning commuter traffic stacking up on the eastbound U.S. 278 bridge to the island. Frequent backups are a fact of life on the congested four-lane crossing from the island to the mainland, but never more so then on Saturdays in the summer when the tourists arrive. Packet file photo

Trying again

The project will be funded in part from $120 million raised by the transportation tax referendum.

A similar referendum failed in 2016, and county leaders blamed it on voters feeling “overtaxed and underserved.”

Gruber said this shot at the referendum was different — it passed by nearly 16 percentage points.

“It’s a really good sign that we were able to clearly communicate to citizens what we’re doing here,” he said.

He added that this version of the referendum was “scaled back” to projects he said are “hard to argue” against like fixes to the Hilton Head bridges.