Tired of heavy traffic onto Hilton Head? Here's the plan to widen the bridge

The bridge connecting Hilton Head Island to the mainland is one of South Carolina's most structurally deficient. It's also increasingly congested.

The Gateway Corridor Project is a joint county and town effort to lessen that congestion on U.S. 278 from Moss Creek to Squire Pope Road.

"Based upon South Carolina DOT (Department of Transportation) traffic count numbers, 80 percent of the time there is more traffic on 278 going on and off of Hilton Head than there is on I-95 crossing the Georgia-South Carolina border," said Josh Gruber, interim county administrator. "This issue is not going to go away."

This fall, Beaufort County residents will be asked to vote on a sales tax referendum that will add a penny of tax to every dollar spent in the county as a means to fund the project.

Gruber said this form of funding would mean tourists help pay for it. If the county were to use another form of funding, the project would fall entirely on taxpayers' shoulders.

Gruber said the county wants the public to know the details of the project because they won't hear any endorsement from officials. The state ethics act does not allow elected officials to voice their opinions on a referendum, Gruber said.

Here's the latest information on the project:

What does the project entail?

The Gateway Corridor Project will address congestion issues from Moss Creek to Squire Pope Road, Gruber said.

The plan is to expand both bridges onto Hilton Head — the bridge from the mainland to Pinckney Island, and the second that connects to Hilton Head — to three lanes in both directions, Gruber said.

It's anticipated, but not official, that U.S. 278 will also be widened before and after the bridges, Gruber said.

How much will the project cost?

The Gateway Corridor Project will cost an estimated $240 million.

The SCDOT set aside $40 million to replace one span of the bridge. Although that will address the structural issue, it will not address the capacity issue, Gruber said.

So the county is asking instead for that money to go toward the entire corridor project, a shift the DOT is allowed to make.

That leaves the project $200 million short.

The transportation sales tax referendum would raise $120 million over four years, $80 million of which would go toward the corridor project.

The county is hopeful another $120 million will come from the State Infrastructure Bank, which funds these types of projects.

The county last submitted an application to the SIB around 2006, Gruber said. That request had a list of projects, some of which were funded.

The county is looking to amend that application to include the Gateway Corridor Project, and make it the county's top priority.

By amending the application, the county ensures it is not put at the bottom of the queue, as it would be if it submitted an entirely new application, Gruber said.

If the referendum is approved, it's more likely the SIB will provide the additional cost, he said.

"If the sales tax passes, we can go to the State Infrastructure Bank with a firm $80 million, which may make our application more attractive," Gruber said.

What is the town's role?

Hilton Head unanimously agreed to become a partner with the county on the project at its Tuesday, April 17, 2018, meeting.

The town will provide $45,000, as requested by the county to help fund engineering services to prepare the SIB application. The money will come from funds allocated in the budget for Town Council initiatives, according to town documents.

Because Hilton Head agreed to jointly fund these services, the contract executed by the county will now include two community workshops and up to four conceptual renderings to use for public education, according to town documents.

Is there a timeline?

If the SIB application is approved and the referendum passes this fall, an "aggressive" timeline for the project to be completed is six to eight years, Gruber said.

An environmental assessment is already underway, which will take about two years, Gruber said. He hopes the county can move straight into the engineering and design phase, and then on to the construction phase.

Alex Kincaid: 843-706-8123, @alexkincaid22