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South Carolina Officials Plea for Road Construction Funds

Wed January 04, 2006 - Southeast Edition
CEG



COLUMBIA, SC (AP) The State Infrastructure Bank has $300 million to divvy out for road construction, twice as much as initially thought, chairman Don Leonard said.

But the good news was not good enough for state and county officials whose road requests exceed $1 billion.

Officials from the state Department of Transportation and three counties — Charleston, Anderson and Horry — made presentations to the agency Dec. 15 pleading for road construction money.

“We have a huge task ahead of us,” Leonard said at meeting’s end. “It’s not so much that we’ll be rejecting projects as establishing priorities.” Eventually, the agency hopes to fund all the projects, he said.

Charleston County requested $720 million, more than double what the agency says it can give. Anderson and Horry counties each asked for $150 million, while the state DOT wants a $48-million loan and $90-million grant.

The four applications were referred to a three-member evaluation committee, which will make recommendations to the agency’s full board at its next meeting. When that will happen is unknown, but Leonard hoped for a speedy process.

The board could decide to fund pieces of everything or concentrate on a couple projects, Leonard said.

The refinancing of old debt at 3.92 percent and increased collections of truck registration fees helped double the initial $150-million projection of what the agency could allocate, he said.

Officials from across the state jammed shoulder-to-shoulder into a conference room at state DOT headquarters to appeal for their project.

The state DOT went first, asking for money to widen U.S. Highway 17 in Beaufort and Colleton counties; 34 people have died on the 22-mi. stretch from Gardens Corner to Jacksonboro since 1997. The NBC show “Dateline” recognized the stretch as one of the most dangerous in the nation.

“Stop the death toll on Highway 17,” said Rep. Wallace Scarborough, R-Charleston. “As an elected official, sometimes you just have to do the right thing. Something needs to be done. Let’s stop the carnage.”

The parent of a 20-year-old who died on the highway also spoke.

“You’re voting life or death. You’re not voting economics,” said David Gasque. “If you vote death, you’re going to hear about it. … As a society, we owe it to our people to build safe roads.”

His son, David Cooper Gasque, a third-year cadet at The Citadel, and Kassandra Leek, a junior at the College of Charleston, died after the vehicles they were driving collided Jan. 17, 2004. Both were from Beaufort.

Charleston County is seeking $720 million: $420 million to extend Interstate 526, also called the Mark Clark Expressway, from West Ashley over Johns Island to James Island; and $300 million to build a port access road off Interstate 26.

Charleston County Council Chairman Leon Stavrinakis said completing the I-526 loop would be critical for evacuating residents from a hurricane, and would reduce traffic congestion off other roads in the fast-developing county. Construction would take four years.

“Heaven forbid we have a Category 5 hurricane without the Mark Clark,” said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

As for the port, Stavrinakis said, it’s “the main economic engine that ties this state.” The access road would include three railway overpasses.

The county’s request comes five months after the opening of the eight-lane Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River; $325 million of the bridge’s $632 million cost came from the state Infrastructure Bank.

Anderson County wants to widen 5.5 mi. of state Highway 24, 6.5 mi. of U.S. Highway 76 and 10 mi. of state Highway 247 for economic development reasons.

Anderson Mayor Richard Shirley said the projects would provide current and potential businesses easy access to major highways and interstates, and link the county — which sits halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte, NC, on Interstate 85 — to major cities.

Horry County wants to complete the final leg of the Carolina Bays Parkway, between U.S. Highway 544 and state Highway 707, and widen state Highway 707 to five lanes.

The county needs the money to relieve traffic congestion, said Horry County Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland. She noted that the state’s tourist Mecca sends plenty to state coffers in sales taxes.

“This is a do-or-die situation in Horry County,” she said. “We’re the golden goose … We benefit the state.”