(Editor’s Note: The Bluffton Sun was first published in January 1998. As we celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2018, we want to look at the past 20 years of history and changes around town. This is another in a series of articles about the changes we’ve all seen. Join us as we revisit the past 20 years.)
Everyone who drives anywhere through Bluffton’s 54 square miles sees the same thing day after day: more traffic, especially during commuter rush hours and peak tourist seasons.
That’s what happens when your town is a nationally recognized rising star as a travel destination and a wonderful place to retire, live, work and play.
The traffic could be worse – just ask anyone who has relocated to the Lowcountry from the Northeast. For Northerners, a traffic jam here is having to wait one turn at the signal light.
As for long-time locals, they complain about the increasing congestion and nobody can blame them.
Since 1998, the time capsule that the Bluffton Sun has composited since serving the public as your local newspaper, much has changed in the transportation grid that shuffles along cars and trucks as safely and swiftly as possible around town.
Three principal arteries serve the local transportation network: U.S. 278 (Fording Island Road), S.C. 170 (Okatie Highway) and S.C. 46 (May River Road and Bluffton Road) for easy access to Hilton Head, Beaufort, Hardeeville and Savannah.
These high-volume routes are supported by minor arteries, such as Bluffton Parkway, that stretches west (at S.C. 170) to east to provide accessibility to local neighborhoods and also to the Bluffton Flyover. Additionally, Buckwalter Parkway runs from May River Road to U.S. 278.
Traffic volumes on some roads doubled or tripled from 2000 to 2006, according to the town of Bluffton. U.S. 278 had the highest traffic volume, almost 48,000 vehicles daily in 2006, an increase of about 55 percent since 2000.
The busiest corridor in Bluffton is on the U.S. 278 stretch from Okatie Highway to Bluffton Road, which averaged 46,200 vehicles daily in 2017, according to the South Carolina Department of Transportation.
Ten years earlier, the number was 39,200. The next busiest segment on U.S. 278 begins at Bluffton Road to the Fording Island Road extension, which moved 41,100 vehicles daily last year, down from 60,000 in 2007.
Last year’s data showed 17,600 vehicles daily traveling the westernmost portion of Bluffton at the May River Road roundabout on Okatie Highway northbound to U.S. 278.
Beaufort County, the state of South Carolina, the federal government and the town of Bluffton all collaborated on some portions of aggressive capital improvement strategies beginning in the early 2000s that would drastically reduce the chokehold of congestion continually plaguing local residents and tourists, provide a secondary evacuation route and stimulate economic growth.
This ambitious 9.5-mile project, often controversial with homeowners, landowners/developers and the county, serves as a non-contiguous alternative to U.S. 46 and 278 that connects Okatie Highway in the west and the Bluffton Flyover at Buckingham Plantation Road in the east.
Phases 1 through 4 between Burnt Church Road and Buckwalter Parkway and at S.C. 170 east to the intersection at Buckwalter Parkway began in 2002 and were completed throughout the decade. It was assumed that traffic at that intersection would directly flow into the 2.5-mile Phase 5B connection with Buck Island Road (Phase 3) to make the Bluffton Parkway contiguous.
Unfortunately, 5B has been under review for the past 12 years with no resolve. Motorists heading west on the completed portions of the Bluffton Parkway have to offset north on Buckingham Parkway for two miles to merge with the Phase 4 connection to S.C. 170. Phase 5 links Burnt Church Road to Buckingham Landing Road at the flyover.
Future plans call for Bluffton Parkway to connect with I-95.
The three-year, $45 million project, the single largest infrastructure in the county since the Cross Island Parkway in 1997, was completed in 2016. The nearly mile-long connection links the Bluffton Parkway to the bridges to Hilton Head Island. The two single-lane on and off connectors decreased the 53,000 daily traffic volume on U.S. 278 by 25 percent.
This 17.3-mile route runs parallel to U.S. 278 and connects Bluffton and Hardeeville. Since receiving its designation in 1939, it has been rerouted and truncated a few times. Its eastern-most point ends at U.S. 278 and at U.S. 321 and 17 in the west. It follows May River Road for 8 miles and then heads north at the four-way intersection in Old Town (as Bluffton Road) to connect with Fording Island Road.
The portion that heads east from Exit 8 off I-95 was widened to four lanes in phases throughout the 1980s. In 1996-97 it was rerouted south of Ridgeland to Hardeeville, then east on new primary routing to S.C. 170.
It extends west to east for 19 miles from the interstate to Fording Island Road Extension at the bridge to Hilton Head Island.
Lowcountry resident Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.