U.S. 278 CORRIDOR PROJECT MOVES FORWARD
Hilton Head and Beaufort County leaders are determined to complete the picture for a building a new, much-debated bridge connecting U.S. 278 with the island. It’s a commitment that calls for cooperation, communication and a lot of cash.
Once completed — and the goal is 2028 or early 2029 — the six-lane bridge is expected to improve traffic flow, enable bicyclists and pedestrians, enhance safety and satisfy a laundry list of government specifications.
Replacing four, two-lane bridges with a single, six-lane span is seen as an antidote to maddening congestion from breakdowns, accidents and periods of high-tourist traffic. The expansion also is intended to ease the comings and goings of workers essential to island commerce. More than 60,000 vehicles currently cross the bridges each day.
Among the engineering and construction tasks: securing the bridge in bedrock — beneath the water and gooey pluff mud — to better withstand hurricanes and earthquakes.
The price tag: Some $320 million, assuming timetables are achieved, and inflation is managed.
The path to a new bridge has had its share of twists and turns, including studies, public hearings and plenty of give-and-take among county-town-state stakeholders.
County and town councils in August agreed to establish a six-member commission to set criteria and recommend an independent firm to develop a plan to deliver the project. The county and town boards are expected to review a recommended firm next month.
At the core of the initiative is a stretch of bridge to extend between the Moss Creek and Spanish Wells communities. Government officials also plan an “endto- end” review of 278 from I-95 to the Sea Pines Circle.
High on the to-do checklist is installation of a signal light system to sync and smooth traffic to and from the island.
“Essentially, this is a county project that profoundly affects the town,” said Glenn Stanford, a member of the Hilton Head Council since 2019.
A spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Transportation said SCDOT is project manager on behalf of the county. The state will “plan and manage construction through completion of the project,” said Pete Poore.
The project is awash in government acronyms, flowing from local to federal agencies with interest and responsibilities ranging from bridge construction to environmental protection. Satisfying those constituencies will require a focused choreography of listening, learning, sharing and collaboration.
“Coordinating all the stakeholders and the public through the project and to stay on task is essential,” said Jared Fralix, Beaufort County’s assistant county administrator for infrastructure.
Fralix said officials are committed to keeping the citizens informed along the way.
“There will be a lot of touchpoints,” for public review and input, he said.
Citizens tracking the project must navigate through state and federal agencies and programs with oversight.
For example, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires such initiatives to pass a FONSI review (Finding of No Significant Impact). Agencies and involved parties include LATS (Lowcountry Area Transportation Study), SCDOT and STIP (State Transportation Infrastructure Bank).
“The project team has conducted four large public meetings, additional smaller public meetings, and presentations to the local governments,” said SCDOT’s Poore.
Finding a way through the acronyms and agencies begins with the six-member committee’s assignment to select a consultant for the independent study. The committee includes three staff members from the county and three from town.
Officials said they expect a recommendation within nine months after a consultant begins work on the independent study. Citizens will have the opportunity to meet with the consultant and review recommendations, officials said.
“There will be interim reports as the independent review moves through the process, as well as final reports,” said Shawn Colin, assistant Hilton Head Assistant Town Manager-Community Development. “These will allow for public input and review.”
The plan and the process face scrutiny from skeptical citizens. Steve Baer, a former member of the Hilton Head Town Council with nearly four decades of experience in engineering, has been among the most active challenging the project.
“My greatest concern is that our local politicians will prevent us from seizing the great opportunities this project provides,” Baer said. “As it stands, they cannot prove they have solved the congestion problem.”
As the project advances, Baer said, he remains “suspicious.”
Discussion of a new bridge has been around for more than five years, leading to a recommendation for a sixlane solution. Each existing bridge is more than four decades old. Fralix said the six-lane approach is the most efficient and cost effective.
In an uncertain economy with rising inflation, officials are concerned that construction costs might be difficult to predict with precision. The agreement reached between the county and town calls for a “value engineering” analysis to weed out unwanted costs.
County Council Chairman Joseph Passiment said, “we need to move forward as quickly as we can.”
“We hope to start construction in 2024,” said Passiment, a Sun City resident. “There will always be opposition and it’s always going to be a sore spot for some.
“In the end, I think this will be a wonderful enhancement to life in the Lowcountry.”
BY MARK E. LETT