Transportation committee earmarks $779K to study S.C. 31 extension into N.C.

A view of the south construction of the S.C. 31 Carolina Bays project from the air on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. Officials from NC and SC have worked to extend the highway north for nearly three decades.
A view of the south construction of the S.C. 31 Carolina Bays project from the air on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. Officials from NC and SC have worked to extend the highway north for nearly three decades. MyrtleBeachOnline.com file photo

A committee of the Grand Strand Area Transportation Study pledged at least $779,000 Friday to partially or fully cover any shortfall in an environmental study needed to complete the northern extension of S.C. 31 into North Carolina.

The money comes from federal funds received since Brunswick County, N.C., moved into the metropolitan statistical area the includes the Grand Strand and is covered by GSATS. The statistical area is a demographic area used to assess regional growth and needs.

Though the allocation for the estimated $5 million environmental study is official, it’s still very early in the process and the road won’t be a reality for many years, transportation officials said Friday.

Walter Eccard -- mayor of Shallotte, N.C., and chairman of GSATS transportation advisory committee for North Carolina -- said this move is a significant action not only financially, but also as a show of support for the joint effort.

“It’s really an important statement in that yes, we are in two different states, but we have common interests,” Eccard said. “We’re neighbors. We’re very close neighbors, and we can work successfully together... We need to be more than cheerleaders. Our willingness to commit essentially all of our funds I think, is a very, very important statement to say what this group in North Carolina thinks about the project.”

Shallotte and Sunset Beach, N.C., have passed resolutions supporting the extension of Carolina Bays Parkway, or S.C. 31, into Brunswick County. North Carolina has a provision to provide about $2.25 million over the next three fiscal years for the study, said Mark Hoeweler, assistant executive director at GSATS.

In 2016, Horry County plans to ask voters for a one-cent sales tax to fund $530 million in road improvements, including nearly $90 million for the northern extension of S.C. 31 to the North Carolina state line. That price tag includes potential land acquisition and construction.

The environmental impact study will provide options and help define the exact paths both states can build on. The southern extension of S.C. 31 is being built to extend to near the Georgetown County line, and if the northern extension is built, it would connect southern Horry County to the Shallotte area and allow north/south traffic that typically clogs U.S. 17 to flow more smoothly.

North Carolina recently released its State Transportation Improvement Program for 2016-2025, which does not include the S.C. 31 extension project. Eccard said he’s not too discouraged because that document is updated frequently.

“You always like to have everything buttoned up. That’s the ideal thing,” Eccard said. “I think, however, once we spend 4, 5, $6 million, that creates its own momentum... South Carolina, depending on this referendum, is making a pretty significant statement. We’ve got to keep the momentum on the North Carolina side and work with our legislators.”

Horry County Councilmen are eager to get the project moving, but there are some worries about the time and desire when working with another state. Councilman Harold Worley said at council’s meeting Tuesday he remembers first meeting about S.C. 31 25 years ago. Worley’s ready to go whether the neighbor to the north is or not.

“We on the north end, we’d sure like to see North Carolina tie in, but if they don’t, I want to take it to the state line and dump it back on [Highway] 57,” Worley said of a nearby connecting road in North Carolina. “Whether [North Carolina officials] do or whether they don’t, we’re going to build a road if this passes, from [S.C.] 9 to the state line. That’s just it.”

Councilman Johnny Vaught said he wants to make sure Horry County isn’t building a bridge to nowhere.

“If we build it up there and they don’t want to come meet us, we still got it,” Vaught said. “I want to make sure we work together with those folks, too, and say look here, we’re going to do our halfway, why don’t you do your halfway, too.”

Eccard said he hopes the fund allocation will put some of those worries at ease.

“That’s just a first step in what we, as a state, have to do to support this project,” Eccard said of the funding. “I think it’s important that we take a stand showing our support for this project, more than just passing a motion, but by providing a backstop, or credit available if insufficient funds are encountered.”

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or on Twitter @TSN_JRodriguez.