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Here are the 6 options for the Hilton Head bridges. The $240M project starts in 2023

If you’ve ever driven to Hilton Head Island, the route you took to get there will not exist in five years.

An upcoming U.S. 278 corridor project will completely upend how drivers get to the island by changing traffic flow from Moss Creek Drive on the mainland to the entrance to the Cross Island Parkway. The project focuses on the bridges to Hilton Head.

The massive project will overhaul the only connection between Hilton Head Island and the mainland. It’s the largest-ever infrastructure undertaking on Hilton Head, dwarfing the $81 million Cross Island Parkway and the $36 million Bluffton flyover.

The $240 million project will start in 2023 and take four to five years to complete, according to the S.C. Department of Transportation. It will be paid for with the Beaufort County transportation tax, which voters passed in 2018; SCDOT funds; and through a grant from the state infrastructure bank if the county’s application is approved.

A public meeting on Thursday presented six alternatives for the corridor. Public comments will be accepted until Oct. 18, and a final plan for the bridges will be released in fall 2020.

Currently, four separate bridges connect Bluffton and Hilton Head: one eastbound and one westbound over Mackays Creek, and another set between Pinckney Island and Jenkins Island over Skull Creek.

In March, SCDOT determined the first eastbound bridge over Mackays Creek was at the end of its useful life and needed to be replaced.

History of the Hilton Head crossing

Before 1956, anyone coming to Hilton Head Island came by boat. Native islanders, such as Charlie Simmons Sr., ferried people and materials across the creeks and between the Sea Islands. When developers began to take interest in Hilton Head Island, they brought private steamlines and a state-run ferry in the early ‘50s.

The two-lane James F. Byrnes toll bridge was constructed for $1.5 million in 1956, and 48,000 cars traveled over the swing bridge that year.

In 1982, the Byrnes crossing was replaced by the four-lane bridge drivers see today. At the time, the island’s population was 12,500, according to the Town of Hilton Head website.

Now, an average of 60,000 cars cross the bridge to Hilton Head every day. The island’s full-time population is around 40,000.

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A look at the J. Wilton Graves Bridge as steady eastbound traffic moves over Skull Creek (the Intracoastal Waterway) onto Hilton Head Island. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

Analysis: similarities and differences

Many of the alternatives have common elements. Here’s a guide to how they’re similar:

  • Widen the entire corridor to six lanes: all alternatives
  • Add right-turn only off U.S. 278 and underpass on Pinckney Island: all alternatives
  • Include multi-use pathway over bridge: all alternatives

  • Build new span of bridge next to existing one: alternatives 1, 2, 3 and 5
  • Build entirely new bridge south of existing ones and C.C. Haigh Jr. boat landing: alternatives 4 and 6
  • Build entirely new bridge north of U.S. 278 on Jenkins Island and through Squire Pope Road: alternatives 5 and 6

Here are the six alternatives:

Alternative 1

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The first alternative is closest to the original configuration of the bridges to Hilton Head. The plan would build a new bridge over Mackays Creek south of the existing eastbound lanes and demolish the old lanes.

The access point to Pinckney Island would change to allow only right turns from U.S. 278. An underpass would be added north and south of the highway to access both the wildlife refuge and the C.C. Haigh Jr. boat ramp.

This plan incorporates the Jenkins Island road widening project, which is separate from the corridor project and funded by Beaufort County. It would add bump outs for U-turns and traffic lights to access the four communities nearby.

Summary: Build one new bridge right next to the old ones, do the independent Jenkins Island road project, widen the whole highway, and add Pinckney Island underpass.

Alternative 2

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The second alternative would also maintain the configuration of the corridor. A new bridge would be built north of the existing lanes over Mackays Creek, and the eastbound bridge to Pinckney Island would be demolished.

The existing westbound lanes would be switched to eastbound from Bluffton, and westbound traffic would use the new bridge.

Summary: Build one new bridge next to the old ones, change traffic directions on Mackays Creek, do the independent Jenkins Island road project, widen the whole highway, and add Pinckney Island underpass.

Alternative 3

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In this plan, there would be two new eastbound bridges: One over Mackays Creek and one over Skull Creek.

The existing eastbound Mackays Creek bridge would be demolished, and the existing bridges over Skull Creek would be converted to westbound lanes.

Eastbound traffic would take the new bridge directly south over both Mackays and Skull creeks.

This plan incorporates the Jenkins Island road widening project, but the base of the bridge on Jenkins Island would change to align with the new eastbound bridge from Pinckney Island.

Summary: Build two new eastbound bridges next to the old ones, use old bridges for westbound traffic, do the independent Jenkins Island road project, widen the whole highway, and add Pinckney Island underpass.

Alternative 4

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In the fourth alternative, crews would build an entirely new bridge significantly south of the existing roadway.

A new, six-lane bridge would start at the base of the Bluffton flyover and head east, crossing Pinckney Island south of the C.C. Haigh Jr. boat landing, and crossing Skull Creek south of the old bridges.

All four existing bridges between Bluffton and Hilton Head Island would be demolished.

The new bridge would come onto Jenkins Island and line up with the existing roadway at the entrance to Windmill Harbour. The Jenkins Island road project is also included in this alternative.

Summary: Build entirely new bridge further south from old bridges, demolish all existing bridges, widen the whole highway, line up bridges with Jenkins Island and do independent road project, and add Pinckney Island underpass.

Alternative 5

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This plan would add two new bridges next to the old ones: One over Mackays Creek and one over Skull Creek. The existing eastbound Mackays Creek bridge would be demolished.

It also includes a completely different approach from Skull Creek to Spanish Wells in which a six-lane bridge from Jenkins Island to the Cross Island Parkway would cross marshland and historic communities north of the highway.

That bridge would cross the marsh north, running to Squire Pope Road, before meeting existing U.S. 278 at Spanish Wells Road.

Wild Horse Road would be widened to six lanes.

The existing highway would become a local road for traffic to the homes and businesses between the base of the bridge and the Cross Island Parkway.

Summary: Build two new eastbound bridges next to the old ones; use old bridges for westbound traffic; create new, six-lane bridge north of U.S. 278 on Jenkins and Hilton Head islands and loops down to Spanish Wells Road; widen the whole highway; and add Pinckney Island underpass.

Alternative 6

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The final alternative is a combination of two others by building two new bridges:

A new, six-lane bridge would start at the base of the Bluffton flyover and head east, crossing Pinckney Island south of the C.C. Haigh Jr. boat landing, and crossing Skull Creek south of the old bridges.

A second new bridge from Jenkins Island to the Cross Island Parkway would cross marshland and historic communities north of the highway on Hilton Head.

All four existing bridges between Bluffton and Hilton Head Island would be demolished.

Summary: Build entirely new bridge further south from old bridges; demolish all existing bridges; create new, six-lane bridge that cuts north of U.S. 278 on Jenkins and Hilton Head islands and loops down to Spanish Wells Road; widen the whole highway; and add Pinckney Island underpass.

Impact of a six-lane bridge

Although some view U.S. 278 as the lifeline to Hilton Head, others view it as an intruder.

The highway, which originally split the historic Stoney community in half, now runs just a few feet from the front doors of several families at the base of the bridge.

If the highway expands by one or two lanes, as all the alternatives suggest, generational homes and historic land will be paved over. Acquisitions of these properties are set to start in 2021, according to SCDOT.

“We want people to understand our culture and our heritage is dying because of this road and the overuse of this road,” Town Council member and native islander Marc Grant told The Island Packet shortly after the transportation tax was approved.

Many historic families hoped human impact would be considered during the year officials spent analyzing environmental impacts before the range of options was released Thursday.

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.
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