On a very recent sunny Thursday morning at 8:30, it took many of the 2,953 commuters on the Bluffton Parkway 25 minutes to travel from Persimmon Street to Buckingham Drive – a distance of four miles.
For reasons unknown, traffic was heavier than average, according to the South Carolina Department of Transportation’s Traffic Polling and Analysis System data web pages.
The three-month historical average for travelers heading westbound over Mackay Creek is 2,468 – 500 vehicles fewer, according to SCDOT data.
There were reports of a three-car accident at Windmill Harbor, on the island. That affected traffic on both the parkway and U.S. 278, causing headaches for everyone with somewhere to go and a time to be there.
According to a chain of posts on Facebook beginning at about 9:50 the same morning, the delay stretched to nearly an hour from the circle at S.C. 46 to the flyover while traffic on 278 stalled at the McDonald’s east of Malphrus Road.
Some folks in that Facebook conversation said they turned around, knowing they would be too late to a meeting that would most likely be over when they arrived while others wondered if they should have already left for work, given the reports.
The lingering effects of Hurricane Matthew might have something to do with it, but not everything, as Bluffton resident Stephanie Oliveira-Nazzaro said.
“As someone who commutes to the island every day, I noticed a decrease in traffic flow since flyover has been built. The only problem is merging onto 278 due to bottle-necking from the flyover. Still slow moving though,” said Oliviera-Nazzaro, who is a home health staffing supervisor at Cypress of Hilton Head. “Since Hurricane Matthew, there was a significant increase in traffic due to the influx of workers, clean-up crews and trucks. What would normally be a 12-minute ride without traffic was taking me 50 minutes from Burnt Church Road to Squire Pope.”
Oliviera-Nazzaro said the holiday commute was much easier, likely due to a slow-down of work and time-off for the crews, but it picked up at the beginning of the New Year.
On the same morning this reporter took the commuter test drive on the Bluffton Parkway, she sent this message: “It is now congested again! Although it’s not a dead stop, it is still very busy on weekday mornings and still takes me 25 minutes to commute. It’s hit or miss,” said Oliviera-Nazzaro. “I will never understand why they spent that much money on a flyover when they could have increased lanes on the bridge, or built another one. This morning there were two accidents and it literally took me 60 minutes to drive 2 miles. Dead stop! All in all this morning, I left the house at 7:15 and got to work at 9 a.m.”
Even for non-commuters, the flyover has appeared to be a modest benefit.
“I wish they had saved the money from the flyover and spent it on schools,” said Sun City resident Jeff Glazer. “Coming west from the island it is definitely quicker with the flyover if you are using Bluffton Parkway. Going east toward the island you save a minimal amount of time over the old method of turning by Haverty’s. In any event, we usually use Bluffton Parkway and the flyover. I don’t know that it’s any quicker. We just dislike driving on 278.”
Plans to widen the traffic arteries leading to and on the island are planned for the future and may alleviate some of what Oliviera-Nazzaro and thousands of others experience.
After the opening of the flyover, State Senator Tom Davis noted in an editorial column that several highway projects are planned:
“Next up for this area, with construction anticipated to begin in 2021, are widening Hwy. 278 on Jenkins Island, addressing the ingress-egress situation at Windmill Harbor and improving access to amenities on Jenkins Island; widening Hwy. 278 from Jenkins Island to Squire Pope Road; replacing the eastbound two-lane span of the Mackay Creek (aka Karl S. Bowers) Bridge with a new three-lane span; and providing safe access to Pinckney Island.”
Robert McFee, Beaufort County division director for Construction, Engineering and Facilities, noted that plans for the Jenkins Island segment are on schedule to be ready for contact bidding in the fourth quarter of 2017.
“Construction would be anticipated to take approximately 18 months, and as stated in the recent sales tax referendum, the anticipated project cost is $7,400,000,” McFee wrote in an email. The work would be funded through General Obligation Bonds, a common type of municipal bond that is secured by a state or local government’s pledge to use legally available resources, including tax revenues, to repay bond holders.
Between now and 2021, traffic will continue to flow as traffic incidents and holidays permit. There is no doubt, though, that orange barrels will once more make an appearance in our area’s daily commute.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.