When Gov. Henry McMaster ordered South Carolina’s coastal counties to evacuate last fall ahead of Hurricane Florence, drivers clogged Interstate 95 near the Georgia border for 30 miles.
A recently approved project to widen Interstate 95 from Yemassee to Georgia aims to alleviate some of the congestion during such instances as well as the standstills caused by traffic accidents. State transportation officials recently approved the first money of a project expected to cost more than $1 billion, allocating $1 million to begin planning to widen the interstate to six lanes for the final 33 miles to the Georgia line. The relief won’t be immediate since work on the project won’t begin until at least 2023, state transportation officials said.
“Even if it’s only a million dollars and just the beginning of planning, it’s the beginning,” said Ginnie Kozak, planning director for the Lowcountry Council of Governments. “And you have to start somewhere.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Island Packet
The S.C. Department of Transportation Commission is expected to vote to formally approve the planning phase of the work this week, said J. Barnwell Fishburne, commissioner from the state’s 6th Congressional District.
The widening project is part of a larger effort to expand interstates in rural areas of the state critical to moving freight, state transportation officials said when plans were approved in October. When 18 different rural corridors were evaluated based on various criteria to establish need, the stretch of the Lowcountry to the Georgia line ranked No. 2, Fishburne said.
The top priority was a section of Interstate 26 from Calhoun County to I-95, he said.
Parts of I-26 between Columbia and Charleston are also targeted for expansion.
The total expected price tag is $3 billion, with the 33 miles of I-95 expected to cost $1.2 billion.
“It’s extremely expensive, but it’s an exciting project,” Fishburne said. “I hope it comes to fruition.”
Fishburne has said the widening will be an economic driver for the affected areas and will work “hand in hand” with a proposed new port terminal in Jasper County. Local officials have also long advocated for a new I-95 interchange in Jasper County to support the proposed Jasper port and drive development and job growth in the area.
An extra travel lane would help alleviate the bottleneck where Georgia’s three-lane interstate condenses to two lanes traveling north into South Carolina. Three lanes would also provide more options to keep travel moving after a wreck, Kozak said.
SCDOT commissioners approved setting aside $110 million annually for the widening projects once a tax-credit program tied to a recent gas-tax increase ends in 2023.
The initial funding indicates a commitment from state transportation officials, Kozak said.
“For quite a while, the answer we always got was there’s no reason to widen 95,” she said. “This really represents a major change. We definitely feel this is very good news.”
By way of comparing the large cost of the project, she noted a project to widen several miles of U.S. 17 to four lanes in Jasper County to the Georgia border set to begin this year is expected to cost about $60 million.
The Lowcountry Area Transportation Study committee, a local panel that prioritizes regional transportation projects in Beaufort and Jasper counties, will vote in February to add the I-95 planning work to its projects list, allowing it to be placed on a state list to receive funding.
The stretch of road on I-95 has recently got a striking new look, with the state undertaking a project late last year to clear about 100 acres of trees from the medians of a deadly stretch of interstate. In addition to clearing trees, the $9.8 million project includes adding rumble strips, cable barriers and guardrails.