Horry County to try to claim surplus road money for S.C. 31 extension to North Carolina

jrodriguez@thesunnews.comApril 12, 2014 

S.C. 31 could be extended to the North Carolina line if Horry County leaders can use proposed surplus funds from the current extension project on the south end of the county.

Horry County leaders are hoping to convince State Infrastructure Bank officials to let them use a planned $50 million savings from the southern extension of S.C. 31 on a proposed project to extend the road to the North Carolina state line.

A North Carolina transportation official said that move just may bump up North Carolina’s plans to connect that highway to U.S. 17 near Shallotte, N.C., creating a highway connection from Georgetown County to the middle of Brunswick County, N.C.

Construction is underway to extend S.C. 31 by 3.8 miles from its current south end to S.C. 707, which will include a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, was estimated to cost $237 million. Most recent cost estimates have come in between $187 million and $197 million, a savings of $39 million to $49 million.

Horry County Councilman Mark Lazarus said Friday at the county’s spring budget retreat that he would like to meet with the State Infrastructure Bank to make sure Horry County can use that money for the northern extension of S.C. 31.

“We need to go ahead before they take the money back,” Lazarus said. “If we don’t use it, somebody else will.”

It was music to Councilman Harold Worley’s ears. Worley has been working to get S.C. 31 extended to the north – which officials say will eventually link into Interstate 74 in North Carolina – since 1994.

“It’s certainly the right thing to do to try and finish that,” Worley said.

Financing for the extension of S.C. 31 south to S.C. 707 is broken down like this: $225 million from the State Infrastructure Bank, about $10 million from the American Recovery and Investment Act and $2 million from the sales tax. Construction of the extension is slated to begin in December with an estimated completion in the spring of 2017, which is when Horry County would know how much, if any, it could use for the northern extension.

The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank was created in 1997 and is a department used to collect money for roads and distribute the funds statewide. It has funded nearly $5 billion in road and bridge improvements since its inception.

Preliminary engineering and right-of-way acquisition will come in between $8 million and $13 million above what was budgeted, but the actual construction is projected to come in under budget, leaving a surplus of between $39 million and $49 million, according to S.C. Department of Transportation figures.

Mike Barbee, project manager for SCDOT, said the average mile of highway, under current figures, cost between $10 million and $12 million, which would cover the majority needed to build the four to five miles of the proposed northern extension. Barbee said those figures do not include environmental studies.

He said the current contract with the State Infrastructure Bank outlines that any surplus must go back to the bank, but it has traditionally worked with local governments on that requirement.

“That’s certainly an interpretation that can be brought back to the SIB to get their opinion,” Barbee said. “Traditionally they’ve been very good to work with applicants on the use of the funds.”

Barbee said the SCDOT completed a corridor study in 2006 that addressed the proposed northern highway.

State Rep. Tracy Edge earmarked $1 million in the state budget less than a decade ago – half to go toward the study of I-73 and the other to the study of I-74, which Edge thinks this road could eventually be linked to. Edge said the money allocation was not meant to fully fund either study, but more so to keep the projects on the radar.

“I’m 10 feet tall right now. I’m ecstatic,” Edge said when contacted by phone Friday. “I felt like we were going to find the money at some point.”

Edge said if Horry County is able to secure that money for the northern extension of S.C. 31, his $1 million earmark has a good chance of being funded.

“If the State Infrastructure Bank actually votes to allocate the money, once that’s done, then we’re off to the races again,” Edge said. “It will provide a terrific new direct route from the Charlotte area straight to us.”

Patrick Riddle, division 3 planning engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said the S.C. 31 connector project is currently listed as a Priority 3, which means it’s unfunded. However, he said, if South Carolina were to get the ball rolling, there’s no telling how quick the project can move up the priority list.

“If South Carolina were to come up with the money, what would happen in North Carolina? Who knows,” Riddle said. “North Carolina may be able to move to do something and vice versa. It’s a very wide open plain. There just so many different options out there. You could free something up, but who knows. It’s just broad.”

Lazarus said first the county must find out it can claim the planned surplus.

“It’s exciting to know that there is already some money sitting there,” Lazarus said. “We just have to go and make sure we can secure those funds that we created from savings in another project.”

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or follow him on Twitter @TSN_jrodriguez.

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