Back gate bridge ribbon cutting: ‘We’re showing them that we’re making it happen’

Twenty-one years after the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base was shut down, former and current state and Horry County leaders stood Thursday atop the back gate bridge – a product of a $121.7 million investment aimed at alleviating congestion from the structural growth and tourism boon the Grand Strand has experienced since then.

The southbound lane of the 1,250-foot bridge at the back gate, named for its proximity to the old Air Force base, opened earlier this week and the ribbon cutting occurred Thursday.

“This is something the citizens of Horry County wanted, we know we needed it,” said Mark Lazarus, chairman of the Horry County Council. “We’re showing them that we’re making it happen.”

Councilman Bob Grabowski said he remembers the days of the half-hour wait through the back gate.

“It would take someone 30 minutes to get through this area,” Grabowski said. “That’s all over with now... To the people of Horry County, I say thank you for your support in getting this done.”

Before the back gate bridge project was in the works, vehicles along U.S. 17 Bypass would line up northbound and southbound for miles to get through the underdeveloped bypass at its intersection with S.C. 707/Farrow Parkway. Socastee, the business community along S.C. 544 and the South Strand were growing more and more each year.

By the mid-2000s, as developments such as The Market Commons, Withers Preserve, Lennar Homes at Emmens Preserve and the expansion of the Myrtle Beach International Airport were in infancy stages, the Air Force Base Redevelopment Authority knew it had to address the gridlock at the intersection. That authority was in charge of overseeing redevelopment of the 3,800-acre base, and eventually worked with the city of Myrtle Beach to install turn lanes and an acceleration lane to temporarily address the traffic issue.

A more permanent solution was making the overpass part of the Road Improvement Development Effort II, or RIDE II, one-cent sales tax of 2006. That tax was approved by voters and the project was sold to taxpayers as a $49.5 million bridge. The project is now slated to cost $121.7 million – much of the increase attributed to the rare soil conditions – with $15 million of it funded by the federal government.

The aim of the project was to build an overpass that eliminates the stoplight at the Farrow Parkway/S.C. 707 intersection, and keeps U.S. 17 Bypass traffic moving. It is estimated that about 70,000 cars and trucks pass through that intersection daily during peak season.

Mike Chestnut, mayor pro-tem for Myrtle Beach, was also at Thursday’s ceremony and said it truly took a concerted effort to get the bridge built.

“We just came together and knew we had to solve the problem at the back gate,” Chestnut said. “I can truly say this is not just a $120 million slab of concrete. This is actually a great testament to what the people of Horry County saw that needed to be done and they came out and voted, and here we are today.”

The project faced many challenges, even as early as the public hearing stages when the SCDOT planned to close westbound Palmetto Pointe Boulevard, which is located south of the intersection. After public rebuttal, transportation officials opted to keep the boulevard open and now faces the challenge of not only synchronizing the stop light at Palmetto Pointe, but also a new stop light further south at Coventry Boulevard.

“There are a lot of things that we’re going to have to step back and take a look at and one of those things is the signal optimization and how everything is going to flow,” said Mike Barbee, district engineer with the S.C. Department of Transportation. “There’s going to be an improvement in traffic flow because of this project, but again, it’s not going to solve every problem. There’s still going to be issues along the corridor.”

As for the timing of the stop light at the intersection under the bridge, which is set to let each direction of traffic move on a rotating basis causing waits at red lights as long as 10 minutes, Barbee said SCDOT will not look at that timing until the end of the year or beginning of 2015.

“The results of that could be into the spring,” Barbee said.

Thursday’s ribbon cutting started a little late and Lazarus used the tardiness to take a shot at delays in the project county and state officials attribute to the permit challenges filed by the Coastal Conservation League. The challenges, filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, addressed the league’s concerns of other roads in the RIDE II program being built on wetlands. League officials have said the delays were caused prior to their challenges.

“It’s kind of appropriate,” Lazarus said of the late start. “We were about two years delayed in this project. Everybody knows we had a little controversy going on with some conservation groups that kind of held us up, so we thought we’d start a little late in recognition of them today.”

Lost among the hoopla of the bridge was the work done in the parameter. Specifically, there were two northbound turn lanes installed to exit Palmetto Pointe and additional frontage roads were added near the bridge.

Coventry Boulevard also was create south of the bridge intersection to help northbound traffic avoid the back gate exit into The Market Common and provide an alternative route.

Back gate bridge construction crews battled temperatures that dipped into the 20s and 30s last winter with two ice storms that delayed construction considerably. A wet spring also helped set the project back from being completed in August to October.

Because of the wet weather, crews this summer also battled unsettling soil called gumbo about 60 feet below the surface, which prevented them from moving forward with the support necessary for the bridge and surrounding roads.

“There were challenges with the soils in the area,” said Barbee, the district engineer. “The soils were pretty much unheard of in the state of South Carolina. We never ran into soil conditions like we did here. That had a lot of impacts to the project, first and foremost financially.”

Barbee said talks have begun on just what penalty, if any, the construction company will face for not finishing on time. It is customary for SCDOT to include a clause in contracts addressing finishing a project late.

“Those conversations have taken place and will continue to take place in the coming weeks,” Barbee said. “The DOT and the county realize that there are uncontrolled things, so those things are all being taken into account.

“There are still some incidental items of work that need to be done, so we’re at a substantial completion date, but not a completion date.”

The traffic shift preparation on the northbound bridge will begin at 8 p.m. Sunday.

The complete traffic shift for the northbound bridge also will take about three days. Motorist can expect limited nighttime closures Sunday and Monday.

The final items – including pavement markings, final touches on the retaining walls and overhead signs — should be done by mid- to late November.

“Our goal was to make this a signature product from the very beginning,” Barbee said. “I think we’ve done that.”

Lazarus said it’s now on to the new one-cent sales tax proposal, which is slated to go before the voters in 2016.

“We hope that will take us into the RIDE III program,” Lazarus said. “Everybody will have the confidence as we move forward for the RIDE III program to have new roads and more of these events.”