It was March 2010 when Horry County and S.C. Department of Transportation officials were glad to see that the S.C. 31 road extension project and the widening of S.C. 707 were sailing smoothly to a bid letting and eventual completion by summer 2014.
It had just applied for a modification to the S.C. 31, or locally known as Carolina Bays Parkway, permit in order to change the extension from U.S. 17 to S.C. 707 and to add a ramp to the S.C. 544/Carolina Bays Parkway interchange.
The process got as far as public notice, which means it cleared all hurdles by the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That is until the Corps received comments to the permit – an objection that will cost taxpayers at least $20 million more than county and state officials planned.
“Based on my staff-level assessment on it, at that point is when it really got into a back and forth of providing information... that resulted in two years of delays,” said Mike Barbee, regional production engineer with SCDOT.
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“That’s when the earth caved in,” said Horry County Councilman Gary Loftus.
Construction on Carolina Bays Parkway and S.C. 707 was set to begin in 2011 and both were going to be completed by the summer of 2014. Both are aimed to address the congested southend of Horry County. As with all road projects, the public had a chance to give its input on the projects and the Coastal Conservation League, through the Southern Environmental Law Center, did. In fact, it’s the comments that some officials point to as the cause for the delay. The league is designed to protect the natural environment of the South Carolina coastal plain, according to its website.
Nancy Cave, north coast director for the league, strongly disagrees the accusation people make to blame them for the delay.
“We have done nothing to delay the Carolina Bays Parkway project,” Cave said. “We certainly asked questions and asked for further information, but that’s just a part of the process.”
She said it is important for people to know that the initial permit request to the Corps of Engineers was filed in March 2000 and many revisions were made to it, including changing the southern part of the project and adding a ramp. Cave said she did not believe any of the comments the league made about the Parkway project caused major change.
“I don’t think any of the comments cause any design changes,” she said.
After two years of comments, the Corps of Engineers received a water quality report last month from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control that put the projects back on track.
Barbee said the $20 million price tag is an estimation.
“These delay costs are not hard costs that we can precisely pinpoint,” Barbee said. “They are estimated based on inflation, construction cost indices, and other market conditions. As such, the delay costs are based on the bids we think we could have gotten had we let SC 707 and Carolina Bays Parkway two years ago.”
The delay won’t be noticed by the naked eye, however. The Carolina Bays extension project, which makes up about $15 million of the $20 million delay figure, was slated to come in at $150 million and is now projected to reach about $206 million, according to county figures. The widening of S.C. 707, however, was estimated to come in around $132 million and is now projected to reach about $105 million.
The impact of the delays are not limited to just those two. When the one-cent sales tax passed in 2006, 15 projects were on the list of improvements. By law, each of them needed to by prioritized and projects further down the list – like International Drive, resurfacing 19 miles of roads and building 30 miles of roads – could not be completed unless there was absolute certainty the higher prioritized roads could be completed with the sales tax money.
Steve Gosnell, assistant county administrator for infrastructure and regulation, said instead of being underway with all of those projects, most of them are sitting idle.
“You can start a lower priority without completing a higher priority,” he said. “So we’ve started projects a little ahead, but we’ve maintained our cushion by not doing them all at once.
“The last four we’ve really kind of held off on because we need to get the bids in on the last two projects, which is 707 and Glenn’s Bay, so that we’re assured we have enough money to finish those before we finish those last four or five that we haven’t really started on.”
Gosnell said the county validates the financial figures, or confirms them closer to actual numbers, every six months. He said the delay was certainly felt.
“If we would have started 707 two years ago... and they met the budgets we have established right now, I feel confident the last four priorities would have been underway by now,” he said. “The two-year lag has pushed everything back.”
What it shouldn’t impact, he said, is the bottom line.
The one-cent sales tax tops out at $425 million or May 2014, whichever comes first. Of the five projects that are completed or are about to be completed, the actual cost of the projects came in about $23 million below the estimated cost. Also, that doesn’t include the Aynor Overpass project, which was projected to cost $46 million and came in just shy of $16 million. However, those figures in the black don’t have county and state officials dancing in the streets just yet. The Highway 17/S.C. 707 project, known locally as the back gate project, was budgeted for $49.5 million and is estimated to cost the fund $106 million after a $15 million federal reimbursement.
Gosnell said infrastructure cost in the county and across the nation are going to be one of the biggest liabilities that will have to be faced in the next 15 years.
“The delays, regardless of who or why, do provide impact as well as construction material cost,” he said. “We still show, even with a delay cost that we can go with all 15 projects identified in the referendum and collect all $425 million as indicated in the referendum.”