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‘It’s all for show:’ Hilton Head reacts to 6 options for bridge, US 278 corridor

When she was a kid on Hilton Head Island, Belinda Stewart Young would sit on her grandmother’s porch next to U.S. 278 and count the cars that drove by.

Over the course of an hour or two, she and her cousins would count no more than 25 cars on the two-lane road.

“And that was on a holiday weekend,” Stewart Young — now 70 — said, chuckling, on Tuesday afternoon.

Decades later, her mother, Margaret Stewart, 92, sits on her couch in the afternoons and does the same thing.

Sometimes Stewart cleans as she watches the traffic, or imagines where all the cars are coming from. Sometimes she notices a car following another too closely.

From her spot on the couch, Stewart is about 121 feet from the traffic on U.S. 278. On a typical day, more than 60,000 cars pass her home, just east of the Crazy Crab restaurant in the historic Stoney community.

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Traffic barrels past the front yard of Isabelle Stewart’s home in the Stoney neighborhood of Hilton Head Island on Thursday morning, which sits about 50 feet from the shoulder of U.S. 278. The one percent transportation tax that started on Wednesday, May 1 will be used to alleviate congestion and build more sidewalks and pathways in the county. Some of that money will be used to replace at least one span of the Hilton Head bridge and holds the possibility of adding lanes if the S.C. Department of Transportation suggests that would help alleviate congestion. Stewart’s home would be dangerously close if the highway is expanded from two to three lanes in each direction. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

The influx of traffic and a need to address the near-constant congestion birthed the U.S. 278 corridor project, which will completely change how traffic flows from Moss Creek Drive on the mainland to Spanish Wells Road on the island.

On Thursday, the S.C. Department of Transportation released the six preliminary options for the Hilton Head Island bridges and U.S. 278 corridor, and neighbors and islanders have to decide quickly how to react.

Public comment on the options — which range from new spans to an entirely new set of bridges on a different path from the current corridor — closes Oct. 18.

The alternatives will affect between 120 and 130 different properties at the base of the bridge, on Jenkins Island and in the historic Stoney and Squire Pope neighborhoods.

If the current highway is widened, it threatens Stoney residents who live near Memory Matters and the Crazy Crab. If a new bridge is installed north of the highway, it could disrupt marshland and Gullah- Geechee residents in the Squire Pope neighborhood.

About 350 people attended the public meeting Thursday to learn about the options.

Luana Sellars was one, and she said she was disappointed.

“Theoretically they don’t seem realistic,” she said of some alternatives that introduce a second bridge north of the existing highway. “Its just shifting who’s losing the property.”

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The historical boundaries of the Stoney Community on Hilton Head Island, which stretches along U.S. 278 from the edge of Jenkins Island to Spanish Wells Road and is bordered by marshland. Town of Hilton Head Island Stoney area initiative plan, 2003. Released.

Two of the alternatives for the corridor construct a new bridge north of the corridor on Jenkins Island. The idea is to use the power lines’ right of way as the main thoroughfare and retain the existing highway as a local road.

Arthur Champen, who lives north of U.S. 278 on Squire Pope Road, has a stunning view of over 30 acres of marsh (and several power lines) behind his home right now.

He’s hoping for the alternatives that stick with the current path of the highway and widen it. He said there’s no way SCDOT would pay to build a second bridge.

“It’s all for show,” he said of the two plans that don’t include widening the existing highway. “They’re trying to appease the people, but it’s really too expensive.”

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Hilton Head Island resident Arthur Champen stands in his backyard located off Squire Pope Road on Tuesday afternoon is self-assured that the cost for alternative routes that place a flyover bridge through a marsh behind his home would be too expensive for the S.C. Department of Transportation to undertake. Just last week, the S.C. Department of Transportation released six preliminary routes for replacing and widening the highway to the island, two of which would adversely affect Champen's property. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

Can all the plans cost the same?

One of the most important pieces of the construction project wasn’t included in the presentation: How much each alternative is going to cost.

Craig Winn, the project manager for the corridor project, said the cost analysis is the next step.

“We’re not looking at the cost associated with the reasonable alternatives at this time,” he said. “Only looking at impacts.”

The alternatives are vastly different. Some use existing bridges, while others demolish all the current infrastructure.

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So far, Beaufort County has estimated the project will cost $240 million and will start construction in 2023.

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.

The cost of each alternative won’t be enough to knock it out of the running, Winn said. In fall 2020, one of the six alternatives will be chosen as the preferred plan.

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What will it mean for the environment?

Environmental advocates at the Coastal Conservation League kept a close eye on the alternatives to see how each one would affect neighbors, wetlands and animals.

In short, Rikki Parker of the league said she found the plans disappointing.

“None of the alternatives completely eliminates the harm to the community and the environment,” she said. SCDOT could have considered “more creative” approaches, she added, such as widening the roads internally or introducing mass transit to reduce the number of cars.

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Traffic moves onto Jenkins and Hilton Head Islands over the J. Wilton Graves Bridge in this recent photo taken from a drone. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

The conservation league plans to comment on the alternatives, and Parker is eager to see whether SCDOT will require an environmental impact statement on any of the alternatives. That statement is “required for projects that have significant impact to the environment and historic resources,” she said.

‘Good representation’ from businesses

While neighbors of the highway cringe at the idea of more lanes, the potential for better traffic flow means residents and tourists will have more access to resorts and local businesses on the island.

Charlie Clark, spokesperson for the Hilton Head Island - Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber was “extremely pleased to see such a strong turnout for last week’s public input meeting.”

“It’s too early to speculate on what the impact on businesses will be since the plan is still in the very early stages of development,” she said in an email, adding that business interests were well represented on the Town of Hilton Head Island’s U.S. 278 corridor committee.

Will nearby properties be safe?

People who will be forced to move because of the project won’t have much notice.

The purchase of people’s land to develop the corridor, called the right-of-way acquisition process, is set to start in 2021. SCDOT assessors will go to the properties that need to be altered and determine how much its worth. Property owners will get an offer on their property and will be able to negotiate, Winn said.

That process usually takes 12 to 18 months, Winn said.

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A driver waits on for several minutes on Cora Lee Lane on Thursday morning before he has a chance to merge onto U.S. 278 as rush hour traffic heads onto Hilton Head Island. The one percent transportation tax that started on Wednesday, May 1 will be used to alleviate congestion and build more sidewalks and pathways in the county. Some of that money will be used to replace at least one span of the Hilton Head bridge and holds the possibility of adding lanes if the S.C. Department of Transportation suggests that would help alleviate congestion. Residents in the Stoney neighborhood on Hilton Head say that adding another lane to U.S. 278 would have a tremendous impact on their multi- generational land. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

The people who will be affected don’t necessarily know it yet, he said. SCDOT doesn’t have a hard-and-fast rule for who must stay and who must go. Once the final plan is decided in fall 2020, some property owners will learn they have to relocate, while others will have to decide if they want a highway closer than 121 feet from their door.

That’s the case for Stewart and her daughter, who agreed they would stay if they had a choice.

“I worked hard to get this place I’ve got,” Stewart said. “I don’t plan on ever leaving.”

“This is property that’s been passed down from generation to generation,” her daughter echoed. “We’re staying right where we are.”

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Belinda Stewart Young, 70, right, recounts counting cars traveling onto Hilton Head Island as a child on Tuesday afternoon as her mother, Margaret “Sugaree” Stewart, 92, listens as the two sit at the elder’s home along U.S. 278 located about 21 feet from the roaring traffic. Just last week, the S.C. Department of Transportation released six preliminary routes for replacing and widening the highway to the island, several of which would adversely affect the Stewart's property. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

Stewart collected information about how to submit public comments on the bridge plans and distributed it to her family. But other neighbors knew nothing about the project.

Aidee Ovando, who rents across the street from the Crazy Crab restaurant, said she hadn’t heard anything about the project that would widen the highway or bring a bridge directly behind her home.

She’s been living there, overlooking the marsh, for 10 years.

From the other side of the marsh, Champen looked back at his relatives’ homes. They live further behind Ovando’s family.

“I feel sorry for my cousins,” he said. “It’s a fight they’re going to lose.”

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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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