Over a year ago, voters agreed to an $80 million county sales tax referendum (complementing $120 million of State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) funding and SCDOT's $40 million to replace one bridge span) for a $240 million Route 278 Corridor project.
But voters, pushed by a $500,000 PR blitz, had no idea of what they were buying. Now, 14 months later, with the price up to $272 million and likely rising, they still don't.
Most people would agree that we have a traffic problem that needs work. Yet, after more than a year we have not seen a robust list of options, costs, expected performance, or even proof that they will work. The planning process has also raised many red flags, including an inaccurate problem definition.
For example, our problem area extends from Moss Creek to the Cross-Island Parkway and local Route 278. Yet the SCDOT study ends at Spanish Wells Road and the county funding ends at Squire Pope Road. Who plans and pays for the missing Cross Island and
Most of our problem is caused by one-way peak traffic, yet SCDOT persists in using two-way average daily traffic. About half of our problematic peak traffic flows to and from the Cross Island Parkway, yet SCDOT routes it all through multiple traffic lights to get there, ignoring possibly more efficient bypass options.
Furthermore, quantitative cost and performance data has not been used to compare alternatives. For example, after this many months, we should have reviewed multiple solution options, their costs, throughput/capacity to handle our traffic, and pros and cons.
Finally, no end to end computer simulation has been used to prove the plans proposed will actually work. All the untested SCDOT plans seem to be brute force bridge and road expansions that route all traffic through multiple traffic lights and unplanned splits and
merges to get to the Cross Island Parkway.
It may be that the tandem effect of all those lights, including start-up delay, and the unplanned connections to the Cross Island, consume more capacity than the extra lanes provide. Are there better options? Who knows?
Every large engineering project that I am aware of uses simulation to prove that it will work and do what is expected, before it is authorized. These simulation studies usually find problems early, and facilitate "what-if" studies, resulting in much better plans. We've ignored that key step.
There is still time to plan this project properly. According to the SIB application, large funding requirements do not begin until 2021. The repair of our planning problems could begin immediately, once the responsible parties acknowledge them. The following steps (coordinating with the county and state) are a reasonable approach:
1. The town should hire independent engineers, expert in traffic modeling, computer simulation and cost estimation. (The cost should be on the order of the town's recent spending on their retreat.) The information produced would answer citizen and town
questions, and would quantify multiple options, including costs, capacity, and pros and cons. Any corporate board would insist on such data to be presented and vetted before any implementation was authorized.
2. The town must become much more assertive in project planning. That includes asking questions, getting answers, suggesting alternatives, seriously including citizen expert inputs, and assuring full transparency. As a town committee person suggested: "SCDOT
should work for us, not the other way around."
On its current path, this project could easily become a $300 million or more financial and political debacle that fails to meet its goals. The fastest path to good plans for us all is a strong and quantitative design and review process in which the town and citizens have a
major say. I asked SIB to postpone its implementation funding until we have that process in place, and approve its results.
Steven M. Baer is a resident of Hilton Head Island.