An aging bridge, increasing traffic load, and frequent vehicle accidents are the roots of a proposal to replace, repair, widen and perhaps redirect the route of Highway 278 from Moss Creek Drive in Greater Bluffton, just before the Karl Bowers Bridge that crosses Mackay Creek, to the intersection of Wild Horse and Spanish Wells roads, short of the Cross Island Parkway interchange on Hilton Head Island.
The financial cost is estimated at $240 million. On Aug. 11, the South Carolina State Transportation Infrastructure Bank approved Beaufort County’s request for a $120 million grant to help pay for the replacement of the bridges. The rest of the funding includes $80 million from the county’s recently approved one-cent sales tax and $40 million from the South Carolina Department of Transportation.
There are, however, other costs that will not be reflected in the bottom line on any accounting ledger.
For Sarah Holmes, the price to pay might be borne by fellow residents who live in the Stoney Community of Hilton Head. The historic Gullah community was split in half when U.S. 278 was extended across the bridge and into the island. Her mother, Isabelle Stewart, lives in a house close to the roadway on U.S. 278.
“She would be impacted more than anyone else on that land,” Holmes said. “That house has been there 60 years. My mom and dad built that house.”
Back then, the island wasn’t nearly as busy as it is now.
“Traffic wasn’t bad at all because you only had one lane in each direction,” Holmes said. “Then they added another lane and took more property. It was peaceful and quiet, but as Hilton Head grew and a lot of tourists (and) business came to this area, it changed a whole lot.”
Holmes said she and many of the neighborhood’s residents attended the various meetings that led up to the final report delivered by SCDOT in March, and said she didn’t feel as if anyone was understanding their situation.
“I know that the bridge needs work, but I’m not for taking more property – and the highway is in her front yard. They probably have a plan and whatever plan they have, they’re going to go ahead with it,” she said. “That’s how I feel and how my family feels. They know the road is necessary and they’re going to do that, but you don’t know from day to day what’s going to happen.”
South Carolina Sen. Tom Davis, who represents Beaufort and Jasper counties, believes that – among other things – everyone who will be impacted has to have a seat at the table for the final decision and be able to buy into whatever alternative is selected. Several citizen groups agree.
“In the last few weeks I have been meeting with citizen groups. I met with the Coalition of Island Neighbors [COIN] on Hilton Head to hear about their concerns. Primarily they are, I think, concerned with the impact this will have on the Stoney Community, specifically, and the north end of the island in general,” said Davis. “If all you’re going to do is dump more traffic on the north end of the traffic, you’re not going to do anything for that community. First we need to hire an independent consultant that will listen to the concerns of the citizens. I’ve been listening to Stu Rodman and Josh Gruber trying to put that piece into place. The primary concerns are: We want to have a through-put from the bridge to the Cross Island. It doesn’t make sense to increase the number of cars that go onto the island.”
Davis also said the concerns of the Stoney Community need to be heard and addressed.
“The individuals who live in the Stoney Community – their concerns have not been fully heard. It seems like the islanders on the north end are bearing the brunt of the growing pains on the north end. The Hilton Head Island Airport expanded, so St. James Baptist Church had to move their church away from where it had been for 100 years. There is a permit pending for a landfill by the north end near the airport. And you’re going to get the new bridge that further impacts the traffic,” said Davis. “You have to have some sensitivity. They not only need to be heard but have their concerns addressed.”
Risa Prince, who is a member of COIN, said that the current four lanes could expand to as many as 10 lanes of pavement, depending upon the design and route option selected.
“That probably will be in the historic Gullah community, which is already bisected by the four lanes, and this is just going to make it worse,” Prince said. “While SCDOT is still doing a lot of calculations and analysis, the public doesn’t feel like our concerns are being heard and taken into account. It just feels like a big paving project.”
Prince said the funds have been secured but added that SCDOT has had the price range as high as $400 million, and that did not include any landscaping or streetscaping.
“We don’t want it to look like the flyover, which ran out of money to do the streetscaping. No one in the town is talking about where that money for streetscaping is coming from. So it will be tons and tons of ugly concrete, and no leafy green to offset that,” Prince said. “This is miles of land both sides and the median, and you want it to look like the aspirational place that Hilton Head is – kind of like making the entrance to your home welcoming.”
Prince also expressed concern about the wetlands that will flank the bridges and the expansion that will be disrupted and displaced by construction.
That is a concern of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League (SCCCL), a group that works to protect the state’s coastal plain by working with citizens and government toward environmental solutions.
“The fact is that the bridge over Mackay Creek is reaching the end of its life expectancy and needs to be replaced. Of course, any construction project of such magnitude will have environmental impacts. The key is how we mitigate those impacts – wetland restoration and land protection are two key ways we can accomplish that goal,” said Jessie White, SCCCL’s South Coast Office director.
White said that when SCDOT selects its preferred alternative in September, there will be a proposal for a mitigation package.
“At that point, we will assess whether the proposal is sufficient to compensate for lost wetland function and other environmental harms,” said White. “Unlike some projects proposed in the Lowcountry, this one is necessary, but how those impacts are accounted for remains critical.”
She added that environmental tools are often used to fight for communities.
“Although it’s sad to say, many times wetlands and endangered species are entitled to more protection than communities that have called the area home for centuries,” said White. “There is no way to fix the structural deficiencies and reduce congestion without having a significant environmental impact. And likely community impacts.”
White said her group is advocating for an independent consultant to be brought in, someone who has specific expertise in understanding the “community” aspect of the situation and provide expertise input.
“Looking at the history of Hilton Head Island, it is clear that the Gullah Community often shouldered the burden of the island’s exponential growth and tourism industry,” White said. “That should stop here.”
The March 2020 SCDOT report stated that there were two peak times of traffic congestion on the highway: between 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. According to SCDOT, the point is to address structural deficiencies at the existing eastbound Mackay Creek bridge, to increase capacity, and reduce congestion along U.S. 278 from Moss Creek Drive to Spanish Wells Road, a stretch of approximately 4.2 miles.
Davis said the project needs to be looked at a whole. “You’re going to have to do the project as one piece. You can’t think of it in piecemeal. You’re going to have to think of that from Moss Creek all the way down to the Cross Island,” he said. “With this particular project, the first bridge is already structurally deficient. The reason all four are involved is it makes sense to work all four, because the others are only few years behind the Mackay Creek bridge.”
He added that it the plans don’t carry the project far enough.
“One of the shortcomings of what the SCDOT has done so far is it stops the corridor well short of the connectivity of where the Cross Island would be. You’ve got to expand the scope of the project farther east where you can get a connection with the Cross Island,” Davis said. “Then you can address the varying lane widths, you can address the difficulty of where the traffic goes on and off.”
Former Beaufort County Councilman Steve Baer agrees with that. Baer, who holds a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering, has been working with COIN, speaking with local residents and attending meetings while pushing for an independent consultant, something he says local citizens have been requesting for six months. He’s concerned that the cost and the expansion won’t solve the issue.
The U.S. 278 Corridor Improvements project proposal includes nine “reasonable design” alternatives, as defined by the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT). Add the variations within the alternatives and there are a total of 20 choices, including a no-build option.
On a daily basis, an average of 30,000 commuters, trucks, tourists and locals travel to Hilton Head Island, according to SCDOT. Although the lockdown cut the traffic usage by almost half on many days, the norm is 60,000-plus trips per day crossing over a 64-year-old bridge that spans Mackay Creek. Traffic studies by SCDOT have shown that by 2045, the load will exceed 71,000 vehicles per day; the daily load at its height is already more than 61,000.
Baer said the real problems are at the Hwy. 278 intersections at Squire Pope Road and at Spanish Wells Road.
“Is it then wise to spend most of the approximately $300-plus million anticipated for six-lane bridges, and then painfully build a six-lane expressway through Stoney to dump traffic into two traffic lights?” he asked. “This does not include any efficient links to the Cross Island and the local U.S. 278 road. After two years, why has that question not been answered via computer simulation analysis?”
Davis has a similar sentiment.
“I’m not an engineer, and neither are the islanders, but it is the job of the engineer to hear what these islanders are saying. And then, after listening to these concerns, look at the project and work on it, and then we can have a project that will be a buy-in for almost everyone,” he said. “You’re not going to make everyone happy, but we’re going to live with this for the next 50 to 60 years, and we have to get it right so we can have something that most islanders agree with.”
For Holmes, her family and neighbors, it’s an unsettling time.
“The thing is you got to keep praying, and things will work out whichever way there is. You have to go out as a community, and you’re a part of it, and you have a say in it. But at the end of the day, they’re going to make a decision for whatever is best for the tourists who are coming on Hilton Head,” she said.
Holmes, her mother and other family members have lived on that land for generations. Her grandparents, she said, worked very hard as farmers, oystermen and shrimpers to buy the land.
“We’ve been at dozens of meetings for traffic and the property and things. You just hope and pray that everything is going to work out the way it should,” Holmes said. “It’s been in the plan for over 20-plus years. It could be next year, and they will say this road is coming through here and they say you can stay or you can leave.”
To learn more about this project, visit scdot278corridor.com.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.