Beaufort News

At last, U.S. 17/U.S. 21 interchange is open

Road construction projects are normally unveiled with little fanfare -- but U.S. 17 isn't like most roads.

At least 35 people have died on the 22-mile stretch between Gardens Corner and Jacksonboro since 1997. In June 2005, "Dateline NBC" identified it as one of the nation's most dangerous roads.

So when county and state officials gathered Thursday to cut the ribbon on eight miles of improvements -- which widened the highway to four lanes and added an improved intersection with U.S. 21 -- there was reason to celebrate.

They lauded funding efforts, including $7 million invested by county taxpayers. A gospel choir sang "Walking up the King's Highway."

It was an emotional scene for David and Dana Gasque, who lost their 20-year-old son Cooper in a U.S. 17 accident in 2004.

Dana Gasque said the ceremony was difficult to watch "but that's OK, you know, if it saves one life."

The old stretch of U.S. 17 was a narrow, two lane road. In places it had no shoulders and was flanked by marshland on both sides.

County engineering and infrastructure director Rob McFee summed it up in one word: "Unforgiving."

"There was so little margin for error," he said.

David said widening was discussed in the 1990s but was fought by environmental groups. The road runs through the ACE Basin, a collection of preserves and easements surrounding the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers.

In March 2004, a Navy bus accident on the road killed three sailors and injured more than 70. The incident garnered national attention and brought agencies to the table again.

The Gasques and other community members formed an advocacy group and lobbied for the project.

"What I think hit home is when they realized there were over 800 school buses a year traveling that road," David said.

Construction on the 6 miles of the road that run through Beaufort County began in the summer of 2007. Final improvements on the full 22-mile stretch are slated for completion in 2013.

Improved traffic flow will add safety benefits and economic ones, too.

"The port of Charleston is fighting hard now to regain the position that it had in previous times," former S.C. Secretary of Transportation Buck Limehouse Jr. told the 50 people gathered for the ceremony. "And they need this four-lane highway to be able to move the containers back and forth from I-95 to Charleston."

Beaufort County administrator Gary Kubic said the road would be an improved evacuation route.

"When we do happen to need it -- if we ever do -- for hurricane evacuation," he said, "we can flow continuously through here."