South Strand residents want Southern evacuation route considered for RIDE III

As Horry County officials gather names to nominate for a committee to examine road needs in the next capital sales tax referendum, a project some consider a matter of life and death in a hurricane has resurfaced after more than a decade on hold.

Bob Thompson and Pat Keelan have been trying to convince anyone who would listen – and, of course, has the funds – that an evacuation route for the south end of the Grand Strand is needed. The original plan, which received support from various communities including Surfside Beach, the Greater Burgess Community Association, the Garden City Beach Community Association and more as far back as 2000, called for extending Holmestown Road from S.C. 707 over the Intracoastal Waterway to Bucksport to connect with Highway 24 and give access to S.C. 701, S.C. 378 and U.S. 501 at Aynor.

Thompson has led the charge over the years, making sure the evacuation route is mentioned whenever area committees begin to talk about different roads.

“It seems like all they’re thinking about is bringing more people in, and I tell them we don’t need to bring more people in, we need a way to get them out,” Thompson said.

His mission is the Southern Evacuation Lifeline, or SELL project. It’s a proposed 28-mile highway with a price tag of between $650 million and $700 million, that faces hurdles outside finding a funding source.

For one thing, it would cut through land conservationists have continued to protect. The road would run from S.C. 31 to U.S. 378, with three of the four possible routes going through the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2006, $5 million of state and federal funds were allocated to study the project and by August 2008, efforts fizzled out, said Mike Barbee, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Transportation.

“In terms of funding, no it’s not ready,” Barbee said. “While there hasn’t been any activity on it since ‘08, it is much discussed particularly in the South Strand. It remains an important and highly discussed project. But in terms if funding, we just haven’t been able to find any.”

It’s too early to tell if some funding for the SELL project could come from the proposed RIDE III project, which would ask voters for a one-cent sales tax to help fund roads. The county raised $425 million for more than two dozen road projects, including the construction of the bridge at U.S. 17 Bypass and S.C. 707, during its RIDE II project.

Efforts have been made to address some of the southern evacuation issues, including the extension of S.C. 31 from its current end point at S.C. 544 to the Georgetown County line. But, until funding can be found for the SELL project, evacuation will continue to be a concern, Barbee said.

“It’s considered a component in the overall evacuation plan,” Barbee said. “What we’re doing with [the widening of] S.C. 707 and the extension of [S.C. 31] represents an improvement in the existing network, but realizing that it’s not the ultimate solution

“We realize that there’s no one single road project like [S.C. 31] that’s going to provide the relief countywide that’s needed,” he said, “but it’s a step in the right direction certainly.”