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Hilton Head bridge construction project will cost at least $6M more than planned. Why?


Cost estimates for the U.S. 278 corridor project planned for Bluffton and Hilton Head Island are already $6 million higher than the $240 million budget Beaufort County voters approved in 2018, planning officials acknowledged this week.

The county’s application for state money, filed in July and obtained recently by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette newspapers, lists the project’s cost at $246 million.

The application to the State Infrastructure Bank, filed by private planning firm Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson Inc. and county engineer Rob McFee, states the dire need for traffic relief between Moss Creek Drive and Spanish Wells Road, which sees more daily traffic than nearby I-95 and is one of “the most traveled corridors in South Carolina.”

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Voters approved a one-cent transportation sales tax last year to fund part of the five-year, $240 million project that will address congestion and increase capacity of the 4-mile span of highway. State officials are now narrowing down 6 alternatives to come up with a final plan by fall 2020.

S.C. Department of Transportation project manager Craig Winn said Monday the expected cost of the project, the environmental planning for which began in 2018, is likely to continue changing.

“We’ve gone back and looked at things, and it’s just tweaks here and there,” he said of the budgeting process. “I’m still comfortable with the $240 million number.”

A look at the J. Wilton Graves Bridge on Friday morning as steady eastbound traffic moves over Skull Creek (the Intracoastal Waterway) onto Hilton Head Island. Crews contracted by the S.C. Department of Transportation will use overnight lane closures May 28 - 30 to repair and replace the rubber joint extensions, gaps between the bridge’s decks, to protect the bearings from the elements. Drew Martin

The cost estimate given to the State Infrastructure Bank must be thoroughly vetted because the S.C. Department of Transportation and Beaufort County have asked the bank to award $120 million to the project.

Beaufort County is competing with other regions of the state for the money.

The difference between the cost estimate in the application and the $240 million estimate previously given to the public shows how quickly projections can change.

In September, SCDOT presented six options for the corridor to the public. They included everything from rebuilding bridges in new parts of the waterways that separate the island from the mainland to moving lanes of traffic closer to homes and businesses.

Traffic barrels past the front yard of Isabelle Stewart’s home in the Stoney neighborhood of Hilton Head Island on Thursday morning, which sits about 50 feet from the shoulder of U.S. 278. The one percent transportation tax that started on Wednesday, May 1 will be used to alleviate congestion and build more sidewalks and pathways in the county. Some of that money will be used to replace at least one span of the Hilton Head bridge and holds the possibility of adding lanes if the S.C. Department of Transportation suggests that would help alleviate congestion. Stewart’s home would be dangerously close if the highway is expanded from two to three lanes in each direction. Drew Martin

Winn, the SCDOT project manager, said the six alternative designs for the corridor have not been reviewed to estimate costs. That process is set to begin early next year, he said. SCDOT expects to determine the final plan for the corridor and reveal it in fall 2020.

Asked whether all of the alternatives will be within the $240 million budget, Winn said, “They could potentially be above that, and then we start adjusting what’s being done to stay within the budget. Some of them can be done for $240 million, and some of them cannot.”

A project worth $272.4 million?

The county’s application for money says the corridor work has a “total project risk” of $272.4 million — the amount of money available for the construction. Winn said it’s typical for a plan to have up to 10% of the project cost added on in the risk calculation to show that a community can pay for any surprises that come up during construction.

The project risk for this corridor project is about 12.6 percent more than the original total cost of $240 million.

But the risk means the county and state have at least $270 million in the bank for the corridor project — several million more than originally estimated when voters passed the sales tax that will fund $80 million of the project.

Unexpected money for the corridor

The project funding sources also listed $9 million the county had earmarked for the Jenkins Island road widening project — a separate construction undertaking that has been in the works for nearly a decade and would add traffic signals and prevent left turns at the eastern base of the Hilton Head bridges.

S.C. Department of Transportation

This summer, County Council chair Rodman lobbied to lump the funding for the Jenkins Island project with the U.S. 278 corridor budget, urging leaders to “take a deep breath” on the work, which he said is at risk of being obsolete because of the larger corridor project.

Residents of the Jenkins Island area point to their long wait for a safer road — and promises by the county to finish the project before the corridor construction starts.

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