David Lauderdale

Hilton Head Autobahn: What to do about that massive new road and bridge project

Emory Campbell used to be able to count every marsh tacky on Hilton Head Island, where he was born more than 70 years ago.

Now the little plow horses are gone, and the cars that replaced them seem as numberless as the grains of sand on the beach.

At least it seemed that way Thursday evening, as Campbell leaned his tall, thin frame a little closer to a display board at the big meeting.

A crowd had already jammed the parking lot at the Boys & Girls Club on Gum Tree Road. And now people stood in clusters around the gym, where the S.C. Department of Transportation released plans for new bridges to Hilton Head and a widened U.S. 278 at its gateway.

Maps showing six different roadway options looked like the infamous spaghetti models forecasting the path of a hurricane.

Campbell wasn’t the only one there wondering if this kind of spaghetti model might do just as much damage.

“When will you find infinity?” he asked a representative of the highway department, who looked a little puzzled.

Another way to say it: “When will enough be enough? When will this all end? Where are all these people going to go? Didn’t anybody tell you that Hilton Head is just one big cul-de-sac?”

Campbell was looking at the numbers being used justify a quarter of a billion dollars worth of new concrete and steel. That would replace an aging bridge and relieve the bottleneck of daily commuters to the island and the weekend arrivals and departures of tourists.

One eye-popping number was 72,600. That’s how many vehicles are forecast to cross the bridge per day in 2045. At peak afternoon rush hour, it will be 78,500, compared to 56,300 today. Without doing something, the result will be “intolerable delays.”

Driverless cars

We were told that’s why we were all there.

But in this forum, people didn’t have a chance to come to a microphone and speak. No one gave a formal overview. People were trying to see it, figure it out, ask the right questions, and come to a conclusion all at the same time.

The public has until Oct. 18 to submit written comments on the six “reasonable alternatives” forum organizers presented on screens set up around the gym.

As I milled around the room, someone pointed out that members of the traditional Gullah community of Stony at the gateway to the island won’t be the only ones affected when the street outside their home or business is widened from four lanes to six. It will be felt to Sea Pines Circle and beyond.

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One woman found her house on one of the maps. She saw the highway potentially moving closer. She asked about noise barriers and planted buffers.

Another man, a retired engineer who thrives on numbers, pointed out that since the first bridge was built in 1956, the number of people flowing onto the island has steadily been increasing. He said that won’t stop because the island is geared to the Chamber of Commerce and business interests.

But actually that could change, one man told me. He suggested I read the book, “Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car ― And How It Will Reshape Our World.” Former GM executive Larry Burns writes that self-driving vehicles for shared use and personal use will drastically reduce the number of cars in the future.

“I guarantee you that this will be happening before the first ounce of cement is laid for this project,” the man told me.

Another person warned me that the number of retirees will shrink in the future, based on birth rates, and the road project is just a money-grab by the state because it needs our tourism industry.

What to do

When I started work at The Island Packet 42 years ago, the big story was the widening of U.S. 278 on Hilton Head from two lanes to four lanes.

As someone still stuck on the traffic circle of life, this much I know:

It’s inevitable. More lanes are needed to handle the traffic we already have. Where would we be with a two-lane U.S. 278? Stuck in traffic. And where would we be without the Cross Island Parkway? A lot of islanders fought it for years. They said it would make the island like the concrete jungles people used to come here to escape. But gridlock is not a good alternative.

Show the money. If the government takes land from people, they better be richly paid for it because it just got a whole lot more valuable, and it already had immense value.

Beautify, beautify, beautify. The Town of Hilton Head Island made a deal with SCDOT that greatly increased the budget for landscaping on the Cross Island Parkway. That was brilliant. It pays dividends every day, and it improves as all those plantings mature. The town and county need to demand the same thing now, and be willing to make a deal for it.

No more traffic lights. If we’re going to all this expense, only to add new traffic lights on U.S. 278 to clog up traffic, don’t bother. Save the money. It won’t do any good.

Think pedestrian. Make sure the new bridges have protected lanes for walkers.

Think bicycle. Put pathways for bikers and walkers along every inch of roadway.

Add a park. Instead of tearing down all the old bridges, leave one as a linear park. I heard this suggestion at the meeting. It’s a good one.

Don’t go backward. Do no harm to the public boat landing and public pier on Pinckney Island.

Spring for option No. 5. At first glance, the best option would be one that moves traffic nonstop from the foot of the bridge to Spanish Wells Road on new lanes over mostly-unoccupied land. I was told that option was too costly and would never happen.

Maybe we passed a better rest stop, somewhere between the marsh tacky and the Hilton Head Autobahn. But I’m afraid that horse left the barn a long time ago.

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Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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