“Things are about to explode.”
That’s how Sen. Tom Davis described Beaufort County’s economic and population outlook over the next decade.
With that explosive growth comes the need for a host of large infrastructure projects, he said earlier this week.
Now that the Bluffton Parkway flyover — the county’s biggest construction undertaking in nearly two decades — is complete, the Republican state senator is looking ahead to the next set of high-priority projects.
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“I want to start having these conversations now, rather than four or five years down the line,” he said. “The last thing you want is things to be snagged because the public doesn’t have enough information and isn’t entirely behind (the projects).”
Hilton Head Island bridges
During the flyover construction process, Davis said he was regularly approached by constituents with concerns about traffic and the condition of the bridges connecting the island to Bluffton.
He said he shares those concerns.
Portions of the bridges “are already 10 years beyond their expected design life(span),” Davis said.
State and local officials are in the process of developing plans for repairing older portions of the bridge — built in the 1950s — as well as adding lanes to reduce congestion and make the trip on and off the island quicker.
Easier access “maintains and improves (the island’s) reputation as a premier resort destination,” Davis said.
U.S. 17 and the Jasper Ocean Terminal
The port terminal — a 1,500-acre, $4.5 billion collaboration between South Carolina and Georgia — will have an unprecedented economic impact on the area when it is up and running in about 10 years, Davis said.
But the port can’t simply be plunked down in the middle of the marsh along the banks of the Savannah River — a series of infrastructure projects must be completed in conjunction with the terminal, he said.
A recent letter from project manager Michael Rieger to the port’s Joint Project Office adviser Doug Marchard breaks down three top road improvement priorities: building a new road connecting the port to U.S. 17, adding lanes to U.S. 17 from the Georgia state line to S.C. 315, and widening the U.S 17 bridge over the Back River.
Davis said shipping companies “will have to be assured that the proper infrastructure is in place” before deciding to transport cargo in and out of the new facility.
The Bluffton Parkway flyover “is just one piece of the larger infrastructure puzzle” in southern Beaufort County, Davis said.
Another critical puzzle piece is extending the parkway west from S.C. 170 to Interstate 95, he said.
This would create a route from Bluffton into Jasper County that parallels the oft-congested U.S. 278.
In addition to reducing traffic on U.S. 278, Davis said an extended Bluffton Parkway would “provide a potentially life-saving alternative route” in the case of an evacuation of coastal areas after a natural disaster.
“There are so many lots” permitted to be developed in the area around Lady’s Island, Davis said.
Sea Island Parkway, Lady’s Island Drive and Sams Point Road are prime development locations, with a new Walmart and other retailers already setting up shop in the vicinity.
“I don’t know if anyone truly knows how (local leaders) are going to get their arms around all these cars once the lots are built on,” Davis said. “... This is a nightmare right now.”
City of Beaufort officials are in the process of collaborating on a comprehensive Lady’s Island traffic study.
Footing the bill
These projects won’t come cheap.
Meeting minutes documenting a recent sit-down between county and S.C. Department of Transportation officials describe funding as a “major hurdle” to improving local infrastructure.
Davis, through conversations with county engineers, estimates that the Hilton Head Island bridge improvements alone could cost upward of $200 million. For road projects around the port, take that figure and double it.
Davis said he hopes an annual $200 million SCDOT funding increase approved earlier this year by state lawmakers can be leveraged into valuable bonds. Once those bonds — which Davis estimates could generate $3 billion — are issued, the revenue would be used for road and bridge projects statewide.
But the county and its municipalities can’t rely entirely on state or federal funding, he said.
Several projects on Davis’ priority list will appear on a November ballot referendum that, if approved by county voters, would increase the local sales tax by one percent. County officials estimate this would raise $120 million for infrastructure projects over four-year period.
Support for the referendum — and potential future capital improvement sales tax initiatives — could help nudge state and federal money toward projects in Beaufort County, though Davis said he would prefer a referendum narrowly targeted to transportation infrastructure.
“The bottom line is that you have a better shot at getting state money and a better shot at getting federal grants if (local governments and taxpayers) have some skin in the game,” he said.