Re: June 15 letter from Nancy Cave, “Environmentalists not to blame for roadwork delays”
In a letter to the editor, I was accused of “misleading” Horry County taxpayers by publication of my letter on June 1 (“Appeals to blame for RIDE II roadwork delays”).
While it was not my intent to initiate a battle with anyone, as the chairman of the Horry County RIDE 2 Committee and, now the SCDOT Commissioner representing the 7th Congressional District, I believe it is my responsibility to do my best to ensure that roadway construction programs are implemented as efficiently as possible and to work to reduce obstacles to that end.
From my perspective and, I might add, the perspective of the professionals involved with design, permitting and the construction of the Carolina Bays Parkway, the delays and additional cost associated with the extension of the parkway and widening of Highway 707, as well as many other roadway projects, are the direct result of interference from intervening groups such as the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), and their client, the Coastal Conservation League (CCL).
The CCL’s representative’s letter of June 15 alludes to “46 acres of destroyed wetlands” during construction of Phase 1 of the Carolina Bays Parkway. Taken out of context with reality, one might be led to believe that Horry County, the SCDOT, and the design/build team blatantly violated the terms of the regulatory permits for Phase 1. This is simply not true.
In reality, final design of the Carolina Bays Parkway as constructed, between S.C. Highway 9 and S.C. Highway 544 impacted less wetland acreage than was allowed under the State and Federal permits. Minor changes in the alignment of the roadway in an effort to overcome engineering issues and reduce right-of-way cost during construction of Phase 1 resulted in not filling some wetland areas that were approved through the permit and filling some wetland areas that were not approved through the permit. However, there was coordination of these revisions between the design/build team, the SCDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, Horry County, SCDHEC, SCDNR and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during this period. Representatives of these agencies met regularly to review modifications to the permitted alignment so that impacts could be minimized as the project was constructed.
There is no question the final route, when constructed, will impact less wetland acreage than the permit allows. Where the team fell short was in documenting the decisions made during construction so that those looking back 13 years later could verify the proper regulatory agency involvement and approval. Over the past 13 years, many things have occurred that cloud the issue. Among them, five years of relatively low rainfall, a significant level of development along and adjacent to Highway 31, a major forest fire that destroyed everything in its path including wetlands, and revisions in the methodology used by the USACE to determine wetlands.
All of these were factors, but the greatest factor was the failure to properly document decisions made in the field. Admittedly, this was a mistake but, as previously stated, less wetlands were filled than allowed by the permit. As such, the total project, as built, will be more environmentally friendly than the project as permitted. The point of my June 1 letter is that groups like the Coastal Conservation League insert themselves into the regulatory process and as a result, this costs the taxpayers of South Carolina millions of dollars annually.
It is my opinion that these groups are intent on slowing the regulatory process and, thereby, adding significant costs to roadway and development projects. To me, the evidence of this is clear. These groups constantly advocate using existing roads instead of new location alternatives. Their opposition to Interstate 73 is an example of this position. Yet in the Highway 31/707 project, the extension of the Carolina Bays Parkway will now end at the intersection of the widened Highway 707 instead of building a new road segment to Highway 17 Bypass as originally approved by the agencies. This greatly reduces the wetland impacts and routes traffic to Highway 707, an existing road.
Instead of applauding this change, the CCL and SELC insisted that an extensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be produced, which would have taken several years and added millions of dollars to the project cost. They lobbied the USACE and other agencies that this should be required. Fortunately, they did not prevail.
With regard to the previously explained “violation”, the SELC lobbied the Corps of Engineers to penalize Horry County by requiring 10 times the mitigation that should be required for wetland fills. Why would this group do this, if not to dramatically increase the cost so that the RIDE 2 funds would be depleted before the RIDE 2 mission was completed?
Recently, The Sun News published an editorial explaining the merits of the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB). This very well written editorial explained the origin of the SIB and provided examples of why it should continue. The SIB, led by Don Leonard since its inception, has had a remarkable positive impact on transportation infrastructure across the state by leveraging local dollars with SIB loans and grants to build major roadway projects. Without the SIB, projects such as the Ravenel Bridge, Highway 31, Highway 22 and the Edge Parkway would not have been possible. Yet, the Coastal Conservation League has lobbied before members of the legislature, the SCDOT Commission and whomever will listen, to eliminate the SIB. Other than to reduce available funding for roads, what would possibly be their reason for this?
Recently a group in Jasper County received a Saltwater Mitigation Bank Permit from the Corps of Engineers. As the first private bank of this type in South Carolina, this allows the creation of much-needed mitigation for private development and public projects such as the extension of Interstate 526 in Charleston. In order to create the bank, it was necessary for the developer to gain a Critical Area Permit from SCDHEC/OCRM. Recently, the Critical Area Permit was appealed by the CCL, represented by the SELC, and they filed a lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers in federal court challenging their issuance of the approval for the bank. Other than to obstruct the I-526 project, what would be the reason for this?
The list of examples such as these is lengthy. While representatives of the CCL may argue that this is “part of the process,” the evidence of their goal is clear. Those of us who deal with the regulatory community on a regular basis recognize groups like the CCL for what they are. They have been allowed to rise to the level of regulators of the State and Federal regulatory agencies. They weren’t elected or appointed by elected officials, so how have they gained such a high level of authority? I believe that there is something terribly wrong with any regulatory system where this is allowed. The current system must be adjusted so that much-needed highway dollars are spent on paving roads instead of spending millions to deal with the roadblocks raised by these groups.