Jared Medlin of the US 278 Corridor Improvements team talks with Hilton Head Island resident Judy Dunning about proposed changes in traffic patterns in the Stoney Community. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

With few exceptions, individuals who spoke at the U.S. 278 Corridor Improvements Open House held July 21 were uniformly against the “recommended preferred alternative” route chosen by the South Carolina Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and Beaufort County.

The project, begun in 2018, was to “address structural deficiencies at the existing eastbound Mackay Creek bridge and reduce congestion within the project study area,” according to the 2,915-page U.S. 278 Corridor Improvements Environmental Assessment (EA).

The project now proposes intersection improvements, replacement of both the Mackay Creek and Skull Creek bridges, and improved access to Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge and the C.C. Haigh Jr. Boat Landing.

SCDOT hosted the open house at the Hilton Head Island Recreation Center, setting up nine staffed information stations with big screen monitors displaying routes and traffic studies, and informative posters displaying artists’ renderings of future landscapes.

Visitors were able to speak with project team members for four hours before the public comment period began at 6 p.m.

The alternative on display was the finalist out of an initial 22 total options that ranged from “No Build” to “Mass Transit” to a quickly discarded route that picked up at the end of the Bluffton Parkway and stretched across the water almost to the May River, tying into the Cross Island Parkway and causing unacceptable levels of impact en route.

Despite the SCDOT project team’s efforts to allay worries, resolve concerns and answer questions – and there were lots of them – those who spoke during the comment segment and those who submitted more extensive written comments were not swayed.

The first to speak was Patsy Brison, co-founder of the Coalition of Island Neighbors (COIN), which has been encouraging residents to become knowledgeable about the project, participate in meetings and provide written comments to the project team.

In addition to objecting to the open house being held before the town’s consultant, MKSK, completed its land use plans, during the height of the tourist season, and before the data from the Cross Island toll cessation is gathered, Brison stated she was totally against the recommended preferred alternative.

“I am for replacing deficient bridge spans; against a six-lane expressway; and against standard bridge and road design,” Brison told the more than 125 attendees. “I am for increased safety of pedestrians and bicyclists. I am for safe access to Pinckney Island. I am for an iconic and aesthetic entrance to the island.”

One subject Brison was equally emphatic about was repeated by nearly every speaker, and a concern by those who spent time examining the displays. Once more, the historic Stoney Community will be impacted by changes to the road that cuts through the neighborhood.

Once considered the “downtown” of Hilton Head during the early to mid-1900s because of all the businesses, Stoney is one of the Sea Island Gullah communities, which also includes Squire Pope, according to the Gullah Heritage website.

When the Stoney Initiative Area Plan, part of the Town of Hilton Head Island Comprehensive Plan, was written in 2003, it was clearly stated that infrastructure improvements would likely need to be made to the roads leading to the island, but “widening the existing William Hilton Parkway through Stoney should not be assumed to be a given.”

The SCDOT project proposes widening the road by taking 40 feet of land from the front yards of those who live along the road and will require the relocation of two businesses.

“I’m for protection and improvements to Stoney. I’m against an expressway through Stoney,” Brison said. “I’m against your finding of no adverse effect on Stoney. At best, it is disrespectful and inaccurate; at worst, it is the worst of human creation.”

She was not alone in her concern.

Palmer Simmons, who lives on Spanish Wells Road and owns property along U.S. 278, acknowledges that the project is going to happen, but “It’s a matter of how it’s going to happen. And how it’s going to affect the people it’s mostly going to affect,” he said.

Simmons is deeply concerned about his neighbors in the historic neighborhoods. “How are they going to be compensated for what is going to happen? What is fair compensation after all these many years? We’re going to be displaced or otherwise uprooted for the benefit of the island as a whole?” he asked. “I don’t think anyone is going to deny that the road is needed. More lanes of traffic in the middle of a neighborhood is going to adversely affect the quality of life. I don’t think you can word that any other way.”

The impact on Stoney isn’t the only concern of many residents.

“I’m concerned that this project was done trying to figure out how to get more people onto the island – tourists primarily – because I don’t think there’s much home development here,” said island resident Judy Dunning. “So, when you try to figure out how to get more tourists onto the island, in the end, it’s a limited space. I believe in development, and I believe in making the tourists happy, but they’re not going to be happy if they can’t move around once they get here.”

More lanes of traffic and the proposed new traffic patterns are causing some people consternation.

“I live in Bermuda Pointe and I have many clients who live in the back gate of Hilton Head Plantation or near that,” said Jean Wardell. “With the current proposal, we’re going to have to go this round-about circuitous road to where I work on Old Wild Horse Road, and it’s going to add a lot of time and a lot of travel to our commute for people trying to get where they need to go.”

The proposed route eliminates left-hand turns – westbound at Spanish Wells Road, and eastbound at Squire Pope Road – and requires U-turns in order to access those roads. The plan adds a new traffic light at Old Wild Horse, which will become a one-way street, allowing left turns from Hwy. 278 eastbound as well as U-turns. Another traffic light will be added at the Windmill Harbor entrance, which will allow left turns out of the community, westbound toward Bluffton.

Peter Christian, representing the board of directors of Hilton Head Plantation and the board of directors for the Jarvis Creek Club on Spanish Wells Road, thinks planners “can do a lot better.”

“This is not about the people who live here. This is about moving people to the south end of the island … maybe. An additional light at Windmill Harbor is lunacy, and it can be done in a better manner,” Christian said. “While eliminating left-hand turns for the folks that live here, you’re putting a left-hand turn at Windmill Harbor. I don’t get it. A new light at Old Wild Horse Road with only U-turns. Ill-advised. The design seems to have been done without consideration for the third of the island’s full-time residents who live between Squire Pope and Gumtree Road, down the Old Wild Horse corridor. All the folks who live here, they’re the people who vote.

“The intersection of 278 and Squire Pope Road fails for approximately two and one-half hours Monday through Friday between 4 and 6:30, a total of 12.5 hours a week,” Christian added. “There are 168 hours in the week. Without taking into consideration off-season when traffic is much lower, it’s 7.5% of the week and we’re eliminating all left-hand turns. We can do a lot better than this.”

Charles Perry of Windmill Harbor, on the other hand, was representing folks who definitely want that light at the entrance to their community.

“With regard to the stop light as proposed in the alternative, we at Windmill and Windmill Harbor Association – which I represent – support and endorse that stop light. It’s something that has been needed for a long time,” said Perry. “Whether or not anyone realizes or not, every person that comes onto the island that does not fly or come by boat, comes across Jenkins Island, and they go through the intersection. That is a very hazardous intersection, and we think it will save lives in the long run.”

Interest in the project isn’t limited to island residents. Brenda and John Lozan wondered if the proposal would affect Moss Creek and found out that “it doesn’t, apparently.”

“We definitely need something and if this is the best alternative, then I’m for it. I think one of the nice advantages for Moss Creek is there will be a bicycle path and walking path over to Hilton Head, if that’s what people want,” said Brenda Lozan. “That old bridge isn’t safe. We’ve grown so much, our way of life has changed dramatically. And I feel bad that it will affect Stoney.”

John Lozan sought out the answer to a question others had about retaining one of the bridge spans.

“I asked if any consideration had been given to at least retaining a section of the old bridge to be used in emergency situations, like an accident on the new bridge or hurricane evacuation,” Lozan said. “The answer was ‘no.’ I think it looks like a reasonable alternative. I’m sure the timetable will stretch, like they always do, and I hope it will be completed in my lifetime.”

Though no timeframe estimate has been given for completion of the work, the total estimated cost for the proposed project is $283,832,429. Included in that amount is $80 million from Beaufort County’s one-cent sales tax.

Island residents receiving value for the money allocated is one of the concerns of Risa Prince, also a COIN co-founder. She said she has asked some supporters of the penny tax about their opinions of the SCDOT proposal. After reading several opinions, she concluded, “No one said this is good enough,” she said.

Prince continued: “The EA assumptions are flawed. Why did SCDOT use the 2010 30-year traffic model when that model was proven obsolete in just seven years? And if Hilton Head were to get that amount of traffic, where would those vehicles go on an island with finite capacity and existing parking problems? SCDOT’s approach is one of 100%-capacity driven while the community values of safety and quality of life are ignored. It is time for the right project. … With a questionable volume goal, unmet community needs and no proven performance measurements, does this EA deliver the right value for us, the taxpayers? For me, and those I have spoken to, the answer is ‘no.’ We believe that Hilton Head deserves better.”

The entire Environmental Assessment can be found in downloadable chapters at scdot278corridor.com. Comments on the EA are due by Aug. 22 and can be sent to:

US 278 Corridor Improvement Project

c/o South Carolina Department of Transportation

Craig Winn, P.E.

P.O. Box 191

Columbia, South Carolina 29202

Comments can also be submitted via the project website at scdot278corridor.com or via email to info@scdot278corridor.com.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.