Official: Ground breaking for S.C. 707 widening and S.C. 31 extension to restore faith in the system

Wednesday’s ground breaking for the widening of S.C. 707 and the extension of S.C. 31 may “restore some faith in the system,” but it may be too early to think Horry County can sell the public on a third road construction program funded by a penny sales tax.

State and local officials gathered at the future site of the S.C. 31 and S.C. 544 interchange Wednesday afternoon to break ground on the two projects. Both are part of the county’s RIDE II program, which has funded and continues to fund millions of dollars worth of highway and county road projects for the last seven or so years. The celebration of the start of these projects, however, were particularly special because of the road the S.C. Department of Transportation and county officials had to go through to get to this point.

Problems with permitting and, some say, public comments from a conservation group combined to stall the process for about two years. The conservation group, Coastal Conservation League through the Southern Environmental Law Center, contests the argument it was the cause of the delay.

Either way, Surfside Beach Mayor Doug Samples said the start of the projects, which are slated to begin this week, will help the public “restore some faith in the system.”

“We, on the south end, were very disappointed at the time,” Samples said of the delay. The extension of S.C. 31 will lead traffic to and from the Surfside area. “We’re very happy to see it brought to fruition. There’s no question that we need better transportation on the south end, most obviously for the hurricane evacuations that will come in the future, but it also helps drive the economic engine and will offer businesses an opportunity to grow, which will lead to better jobs for our people.”

The 3.8-mile extension of S.C. 31 from its current south end to S.C. 707, which will include a bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, is estimated to cost between $225 million and $237 million. The State Infrastructure Bank will provide $225 million, while about $10 million will come from the American Recovery and Investment Act and $2 million will come from the sales tax. Construction of the extension is slated to begin in December with an estimated completion in the spring of 2017.

The 9.2-mile widening of S.C. 707 from a two-lane road to a five-lane road with curb, gutter and sidewalks will span from just south of Enterprise Road in Horry County to U.S. 17 in Georgetown County. Crews will be working to clear the construction area of grubbing and trees through the spring and the entire project should be completed by the spring of 2017. The $105 million project will be funded by the county’s one-cent sales tax.

Horry County Chairman Mark Lazarus said the two projects worked off each other for funding as the county was able to leverage the sales tax funds from the widening project to secure funding for the extension of S.C. 31.

Don Leonard, chairman of the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank, said the relationship between Horry County, the state’s Infrastructure Bank and the SCDOT has been mirrored across the state since 1997 and has led to nearly $5 billion in road and bridge improvements. He said the widening of S.C. 707 will be a tremendous improvement for tourists and locals alike.

“Not only will it make it easy for the tourists and not only will it be a huge help with hurricane evacuations, but also there are more than 20 subdivisions in that 9.2-mile stretch,” Leonard said. “So we’re going to make it much easier for locals to get around.”

Leonard also took some time to thank the men and women who will be working on the roads.

“When we’re gone and we’re through celebrating, they’ll be hanging out 60 feet above the water, building a bridge over the waterway,” he said. “In cold weather, hot weather. Days like today. Days like a coupe of years ago in January. Those are the real heroes.”

Mike Wooten, commissioner for the SCDOT’s 7th Congressional District which includes Horry and Georgetown counties, expressed the challenge to get to Wednesday’s celebration.

“This segment of road, with the completion of [S.C. 31] as opposed to the original permit of this project, will fill 24 acres less wetlands than was originally permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Wooten said. He specifically pointed out the conservation league and the law center, claiming they were the cause of the two-year delay, which he said cost an estimated $15 million more for taxpayers.

“We would have been here two years ago and had $15 million more to spend if not for the conservation league and the Southern Environmental Law Center,” Wooten said. “We would have been riding on these roads today were it not for the interference of those agencies.”

In early 2010, the SCDOT was ordered to incorporate the S.C. 31, locally known as Carolina Bays Parkway, road extension and the widening of S.C. 707 projects into one project. By March of that year, it had applied for a modification to the S.C. 31 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 was estimated to cost taxpayers at least $20 million more than county and state officials planned.

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.

Contacted by phone after the press conference, Nancy Cave, North Coast office director for the Coastal Conservation League, said the league and the law center are not to blame for the delay.

“Mr. Wooten is wrong,” Cave said. “The Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Environmental Law Center has nothing to do with the two year delay and the $15 million cost. There are two reasons that the project was delayed... The first one is because the design of the road was changed. The terminus was changed up on 31. So when you change the design of a major road project, you have to make modifications and you have to change your permit... The second reason is because the Corps became aware that SCDOT contractors illegally filled wetlands during the building of the first two phases of 31.”

“We commented on these changes just as the other agencies did like U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Natural Resources, and other individuals who commented on these changes,” Cave said.

Lazarus said after the press conference that now that the delay is behind the project and it is now moving forward, the county still needs to show the public more results before it can begin work on a new RIDE program.

“We need the confidence of the public,” he said. “They need to know we’re doing what we said we would do.”

Of the 15 prioritized projects the county has listed for RIDE II, nine are in progress, under construction or have been completed. He referenced the International Drive project – a $15.5 million project to pave and widen about 5 1/2 miles of roadway between S.C. 90 and River Oaks Drive – as a point of reference for the impending RIDE III program.

“I would certainly hope that by the time we do bring this to referendum, that there’s going to be asphalt on International Drive,” Lazarus said. The project is currently slated to be completed in late 2015. “I believe that we’ll have the confidence of the voting public and everybody’s going to be excited. They’re going to be excited for more and better roads.”