LONG-AWAITED U.S. 278 IMPROVEMENT PROPOSAL EXPECTED TO BE REVEALED
The South Carolina Department of Transportation is expected to reveal this month its long-awaited preferred option for an estimated $272 million project designed to ease peak-time traffic congestion on the island’s north end.
SCDOT is scheduled to present its preferred option at a July 22 public hearing. The proposal is undergoing an environmental assessment required by the National Environmental Policy Act. SCDOT will incorporate public comments into its preferred option and send it back to the Federal Highway Administration, which oversees NEPA.
Beaufort County Council member Stu Rodman called it a drawn-out process, required by federal law, that started with creating alternatives, gathering community input and using that information to finalize the alternatives.
The project, which will take three to five years to complete, would revamp or replace the bridges connecting Hilton Head to the mainland and expects to improve traffic flow between Moss Creek Drive in Bluffton and Spanish Wells Road on the island. The project, scheduled to start in 2024, is funded by a voter-approved 1-cent tax increase, a state grant, SCDOT and other local sources.
SCDOT unveiled six proposed routes nearly two years ago, later adding three others. Concerns were raised about environmental effects, displacing the historic Stoney neighborhood and increased traffic congestion.
Critics argued for an independent review of the alternatives. The county and town opted to hire HDR Engineering. Craig Winn, SCDOT Program Manager, reviewed the HDR recommendations and how SCDOT responded in a May town council workshop on Zoom.
The HDR recommendations focus on traffic flow. They call for two-phase traffic lights that stay green for 90 percent of the time and limiting conflict points where U.S. 278 intersects with Jenkins, Gateway Drive and Blue Heron Point roads.
The suggestions call for the elimination of left turns at Squire Pope and Spanish Well Roads, a new light at Old Wild Horse Road and a 45-mile speed limit in the area. It also proposes studying future changes to U.S. 278 like adding parallel access roads and evaluating the intersections at Wild Horse and Gumtree Roads.
“All the parties appear to be converging on the need for parallel access roads,” Rodman said.
Local officials were also urged to create an island gateway with enhancements that highlight Stoney’s Gullah history. Other aesthetics included landscaped medians, biking and walking pathways and low-level lighting.
The town hired MKSK Inc., a land planning consultant, to recommend to SCDOT designs for the island’s entrance and in Stoney, said Shawn Colin, senior advisor to the town manager. Additional recommendations may be appropriate once SCDOT releases the Environmental Assessment results and details of the preferred route are made public, he said.
SCDOT’s plan should cover from the Moss Creek streetlights on the mainland to the Cross Island Parkway and U.S. 278 near Gumtree road, said Steve Baer, a member of a citizen’s group that says it has more than 5,900 signatures on a petition challenging the project. The group has made its concerns known to NEPA and politicians such as state Sen. Tom Davis.
“Some of our group say that SCDOT started with the answer they wanted and worked backward to try to get it,” he said. “They also feel that the land planner that has been hired, while important, may be being used to sell lipstick on a pig.”
SCDOT’s scope stops at Spanish Wells, and county funding stops at Squire Pope, Baer said. The proposed alternatives don’t study or pay for such things as the ramifications of no left turns at Squire Pope and Spanish Wells Roads, which could add congestion to roads near 278 or require changes at the Gumtree Road intersection, he said.
“Most important, we have not been given end-to-end comparison of the costs, throughout, impacts and issues of the alternatives, or proof that they will solve our problem,” he said. “Despite many meetings and comments over two years, there has been a lack of scientific computation and transparency on this project.”
The July 22 public hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Island Recreation Center, 20 Wilborn Road. Those unable to attend can schedule in-person appointments July 14-16 and Aug. 18-21 at the recreation center.
For more information, visit scdot278corridor.com.