COLUMN: Too many dollars, not enough sense

  • Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2013 1:03 a.m.

The S.C. Department of Transportation is at it again.

SCDOT’s latest project is the proposed widening of Hitchcock Parkway. From Silver Bluff Road to Huntsman Drive, the parkway will be expanded to five lanes. From Huntsman Drive to U.S. 1, it will become four lanes with a planted median in the middle. Right-of-way acquisition is scheduled for 2014 with construction starting in 2015.

The proposed price tag has risen above $30 million, or roughly twice the $16 million originally envisioned by the City of Aiken.

This proposal has raised the eyebrows of residents along the impacted route.

While some agree that improvements to relieve periodic congestion are warranted, most who have contacted their elected officials believe the plan is sheer overkill.

City Councilman Dick Dewar and County Councilman Andrew Siders represent the area in question. Both report an overwhelmingly negative response. “The majority is dead set against SCDOT,” said Dewar.

Siders reported that many of his constituents think “SCDOT is building a monstrosity.”

The objections from local residents cover a variety of issues, ranging from additional right-of-way acquisitions and resulting declines in neighborhood property values to higher speeds on the widened road and increased noise levels.

Some contend the widening will be counterproductive: the improvements will attract more traffic onto the parkway, increasing congestion at the U.S. 1 and Silver Bluff Road intersections.

Members of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church are concerned about the expanded right-of-way’s impact on the bell tower and the need for a retaining wall to protect the church’s foundation.

The aesthetic impact is also a concern. One correspondent compared the proposal to the Rudy Mason Parkway, a “vast wasteland of concrete and asphalt that negatively affects the human spirit” and “destroys the beauty and charm” that makes Aiken a desirable community in which to live.

For these residents, the project is a costly, disruptive boondoggle. Some question the need for any work on the parkway, while others favor a more modest scope of work covering numerous minor improvements. Yet residents think their opinions may be overwhelmed by a bureaucratic juggernaut.

Other city residents have been down this road before.

In 2010, SCDOT unveiled a project to widen Silver Bluff Road between Indian Creek and Richardson’s Lake Road from two lanes to five lanes.

The response from the Gem Lakes and Woodside neighborhoods was immediate and intense.

Not only was the project extremely costly, but it would have wrecked a scenic entrance into the city and taken an unacceptable amount of property from adjacent homeowners.

In the end, opponents of the proposed Silver Bluff Road project succeeded in reducing the scope down to the so-called “three lane alternative.” The project will now focus on the creation of additional turning and acceleration/deceleration lanes. Since the congestion on the road was caused more by drivers turning off than by the volume of traffic itself, this was an appropriate response.

Some in Gem Lakes, however, remain dissatisfied because even the scaled down project requires property takings for right-of-way. Yet this dissatisfaction highlights how much worse the original five lane concept would have been if adopted.

So what lessons does the Silver Bluff Road experience hold for homeowners along the Hitchcock Parkway? How did the residents of Woodside and Gem Lakes push back on SCDOT?

By organizing early, educating themselves on the issue, engaging their elected officials, and turning out large numbers to public hearings, concerned citizens made their voices heard. Community activists were included in discussions between SCDOT and local lawmakers. Residents hired an attorney to provide counsel and handle FOIA requests.

Ultimately, the Silver Bluff Road project was diverted onto a more reasonable path. Opponents of the Hitchcock Parkway proposal can take heart – resistance isn’t futile. Already, meetings are being held between residents and city officials to devise a more acceptable alternative.

Real reform, however, is needed within SCDOT. The current practice is to design the project first and then engage the public and their representatives second.

A more efficient approach would be to involve the community first before putting pen to paper.

This approach would save money, time, and heartache. Instead of fighting proposals that are already moving down the track, citizens and their representatives should have greater input at the beginning. In a self-governing republic, the citizenry must be the masters, not the bureaucrats.

Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County Council member.

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