I recently read an op-ed piece by Nancy Cave of the Coastal Conservation league about Commissioner Mike Wooten’s claim regarding her group’s involvement in delaying infrastructure projects along the S.C. coast. I cannot comment directly on the delay to the last phase of Carolina Bays Parkway since I was not involved, but I can comment on Ms. Cave’s flagrant comment on the propensity of the S.C. Department of Transportation to fill wetlands.
I think I need to give a little background about my opinion of DOT’s true propensity for the Carolina Bay Parkway project. I worked for DOT for 15 years before entering the private sector in 2006. For six of those years I oversaw Horry County’s original RIDE program, which funded more than $1 billion dollars of much needed infrastructure improvements to an area beleaguered by years of standstill traffic. The crown jewel of that locally supported program was the Carolina Bays Parkway.
The parkway was developed as an approximately 30 mile, new location roadway spanning from S.C. 9 to U.S. 17 near Holmestown Road. This project was to provide a high speed, fully access controlled alternative to the over capacitated U.S. 17 and U.S. 501 corridors. The parkway would provide the Grand Strand with a long range capacity upgrade that would be able to accommodate future growth by restricting future development access to the parkway. Based on the more than 20,000 cars a day that currently use this facility, I think.DOT’s propensity for well-planned infrastructure shines through.
Ms. Cave mentioned the 46 acres of unauthorized wetland impacts that were sited during a recent modification of the original 2000 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetland permit. It is important to understand that the 2000 Corps of Engineers permit was a culmination of more than six years of intensive work in which thousands of acres and a multitude of alternatives were investigated to ensure that the preferred alignment was the least damaging alternative. This was done in full cooperation of all the resource agencies. The propensity of all involved was to produce a large scale infrastructure project that combined innovative construction methods with environmental stewardship. Based on the fact that the project won a National Design Build Award for large infrastructure projects and a National Environmental Award for development of the Sandy Island Mitigation Bank, I think that propensity proved successful.
The project stands today as the third largest constructed project, as far as cost, in S.C.DOT history. So many innovations and uncharted courses had to be explored to bring such a huge endeavor to fruition. Carolina Bays Parkway was developed during the fledging days of S.C.DOT’s Design Build Program. The Design Build Delivery method allowed S.C.DOT to go to construction on large scale projects much earlier, evoking the old “time is money” adage. This alternate delivery process, in essence, has the owner partner with the contractor to build from a concept design and not finished plans. I relate it to someone contracting a builder to build their dream home from a diagram they saw in a Southern Living Magazine. The builder would assume design responsibilities, albeit under strict guidelines set by the owner, and many of the building issues would be handled as the house was under construction. This new delivery method led to many “out of the box” approaches such as permitting this massive project.
The 2000 USACE Carolina Bays Permit was unique in that the intent of the permit was to provide a corridor approach to the environmental impacts since the project was to be built in stages using the Design Build Delivery Method. This meant that the plans used to permit the project were not completed to the level that was normal to the Design Build Bid Method. The concept was that the selected Design Builder would have the ability to move the alignment within the corridor as long as the impacts thresholds were not exceeded. Any shifts outside of that approximate 280-foot wide corridor or modifications in access would require a permit modification. The future unforeseen issue that arose was that no one anticipated the personnel turnover that would occur over those many years. The lack of ensuring that this innovative concept was documented clearly left many questions for those who would were charged with interpreting the intent over a decade later. Many of the personnel involved in key decision points for the 2000 permit had simply moved on.
I have a great respect for the Corps of Engineers and later in my S.C.DOT career I had the privilege to work closely with many of their staff members. I always found them to be fair and willing to listen to all sides of the issue which is all one can ask. Although I wholeheartly disagree with the assumption that 46 acres were illegally disturbed, I can see where the lack of proper documentation of the permit’s intent would lead to their decision. The bottom line is that the new termination of the Carolina Bays Parkway at S.C. 707, instead of U.S.17, decreased the wetland impacts of the entire project by 20 acres. That is 20 acres that were previously mitigated for.
My point in this opinion piece is that Carolina Bays Parkway is a project to be proud of. The propensity of all those involved from DOT, Horry County, FHWA, Palmetto Transportation Constructors to the local RIDE committee was to develop and build a phenomenal, nationally acclaimed project that lived up to its commitments both to the citizens of Horry and the environmental agencies. Outside the need to button up some paperwork, I would say the project was a resounding success. My only wish is that Ms. Cave and her group had the same propensity for partnership, collaboration, and finding resolutions that benefit all involved. I wish that their group did not have the propensity for finding ways to block much-needed infrastructure projects in lieu of offering viable solutions to balance growth with environmental stewardship. I believe they can go hand in hand. I believe if partnership and problem solving was the propensity of Ms. Cave’s organization, then I doubt they would ever be blamed for delays.