By Tony Kukulich
Beaufort County officials voted to take no action on a plan that would have expanded the Sea Island Parkway on Lady’s Island from three to four lanes from the Woods Memorial Bridge to Walmart.
The vote, which leaves the plan dead in the water, came during a meeting of the Beaufort County Public Facilities Committee on Tuesday, Sept. 20.
“The council chose to eliminate the worst of the plans, the four-lane aspect,” Chuck Newton of the Sea Island Coalition. “It just did not work.”
The effort to realign the flow of traffic in and out of Beaufort High School is one of nine projects that comprise the Lady’s Island Corridor Traffic Improvement initiative. County staff put five alternative plans forward earlier this year to improve traffic around the school. Over time, all of those plans were removed from consideration due to either intense public opposition or cost.
“We had all of these options that we looked at,” said District 2 Council Member Paul Sommerville. “One by one it became obvious that they were not going to work.”
During the August Public Facilities Committee meeting, staff came forward with Alternative 0, a plan that attempted to improve the flow of traffic in the vicinity of Beaufort High School by expanding Sea Island Parkway to four lanes. At the time, the Alternative 0 was little more than a concept without a project sketch or financial analysis.
“The engineers brought up this notion of (Alternative) 0,” Sommerville added. “There was no specifics at all.”
In response, the committee approved a motion by Sommerville directing county staff to return to the committee with a more fully developed plan.
While that work was underway, County Administrator Eric Greenway appeared at the Beaufort/Port Royal joint council meeting on Sept. 6. He provided an informal update on the Sea Island Parkway expansion and indicated that there was pressure to reject Alternative 0.
“There was a vote and a recommendation to continue with the design of a four-lane section,” Greenway said. “But there’s also some pressure now being exerted on the political process once again to roll back that decision and change that decision.”
There was some expectation that Alternative 0 would be on the county council’s Sept. 12 agenda. Instead, it returned to the Public Facilities Committee.
“I talked to Stu Rodman and said, ‘Look, it needs to come back to public facilities,’” Sommerville explained. “‘It doesn’t need to go to council. That just looks like it’s farther down the road than it is.’ That’s why Stu put it on the agenda for public facilities, which I’m grateful for.”
Public opposition to Alternative 0 was evidenced by the standing-room-only crowd at Tuesday’s meeting. Most attendees stood for more than an hour in a crowded hallway outside council chambers waiting for a Finance Committee meeting in council chambers that ran long to end. It delayed the start of the public facilities meeting until nearly 4 p.m.
It appeared, however, that the committee had already gotten the message about public opposition to the plan.
“We as council clearly understand the amount of push back that there has been to the so-called Alternative 0, which would widen (Sea Island Parkway) from the three to the four lanes,” said Stu Rodman, District 11 council member and committee chair, in his opening remarks.
Less than 10 minutes into the meeting and before any public comment, Rodman set the tone of the debate when he asked Assistant County Administrator Jared Fralix to discuss the implications if the council took no action.
County staff proceeded to review the options available and the related costs. At the conclusion of their presentation, Greenway implored the committee to take action.
“We just need you all to do something, to tell us what you want us to do,” said Greenway. “We’ve studied this to death. We’ve allocated a lot of county resources here and we’ve made zero progress on this issue.”
Satisfied that the staff report provided evidence that Alternative 0 was not viable, Sommerville made his case for killing the plan.
“I’m prepared to make a motion that we take no action on the intersection of Beaufort High School and (Route) 21 and move on to the other seven or eight, I guess it’s seven, other projects rather than just debate this ad infinitum, ad tedium, because I don’t think we’re ever going to get a consensus to do any of the options that we have for that intersection,” Sommerville said. “I think as long as we keep debating it, it’s going to drag on and on, and it’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. It’s not going to be productive.”
Rodman limited the public comment portion of the meeting to five speakers, all of whom spoke in opposition to Alternative 0. Sommerville then put forward his motion as promised. It passed 9-1. District 3 Council Member York Glover was the motion’s sole opponent.
“I’m simply not comfortable right now supporting anything at this time, so I’m going to vote no,” Glover said.
Speaking after the vote, Carol Ruff, a Lady’s Island resident, expressed frustration that no progress was made on the core issue of improving the flow of traffic in and out of Beaufort High School. Her opinion appeared to be in the minority.
“I don’t feel that way,” said Tricia Fidrych, who serves on the Beaufort County School District Board of Education. “A decision was made. The staff now has direction. No one was happy with any of these alternatives. There were many unanswered questions. I really feel that none of the alternatives were perfect. At least now they’ve given the staff direction to start making some improvements.”
Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.