Column: Common sense needed in Hitchcock Parkway project
There has been well-documented, overwhelming citizen opposition to the S.C. Department of Transportation’s plan to transform Hitchcock Parkway from a two-lane, tree-lined boulevard that abuts Hitchcock Woods (the “crown jewel” of Aiken), 19 residential communities, churches and an elementary school – to a four- and five-lane freeway.
The current price tag is $41.3 million – $14.8 million more than available funding. In 2004, this was to be a rational $2 million project consisting of the addition of passing lanes. So, with design work just beginning, the project cost has already ballooned by 1,900 percent.
It is instructive to compare the parkway project with the Silver Bluff Road project, for which the final design is complete. They both degenerated from sensible, cost-effective improvements into four- to five-lane monsters. Following a seven-year battle, citizens were successful in having Silver Bluff Road reduced to three lanes, at a much lower cost (so one would think, but the Silver Bluff Road right-of-way acquisition estimate just tripled, increasing by $1 million). The Hitchcock Parkway project is much more complex than the Silver Bluff project, which makes predicting the final cost considerably more problematic.
The planning organizations that have the power to control the parkway’s scope and design criteria, to which the SCDOT works, are the SCARTS (Augusta Regional Transportation Study) Policy Subcommittee, and the parent group, the ARTS Policy Committee.
The subcommittee is comprised of city and county elected and unelected officials. The chairman is Mayor Fred Cavanaugh. The membership lists can be obtained by calling the Aiken County Planning & Development Department at 803-642-1520.
I have attended the two meetings held by the subcommittee this year. At both sessions, the large room was filled with citizens protesting the DOT’s plans to fundamentally change the character of Hitchcock Parkway. These citizens have implored the subcommittee to exercise its prerogative, responsibility and authority to rein in the SCDOT and, by doing so, prevent the construction of another concrete/asphalt wasteland that will serve to degrade the landscape and harden the human spirit. The heart of many long-established residential neighborhoods and sensitive ecological areas will not be spared. According to SCDOT officials, Hitchcock Parkway will have the appearance of I-20, without the wide shoulders and a median. Other SCDOT projects – such as East Pine Log Road – also provide reliable indicators of the horrendous visual and noise impact that the “new” Hitchcock Parkway will present.
There are certainly improvements that can be made to the parkway, as is the case with most any roadway (If one examines the record, it will be found that Hitchcock Parkway is far from the most “congested” roadway in Aiken County).
However, those improvements can be achieved by thoughtful analysis and planning, resulting in specific, targeted enhancements (e.g., turning, acceleration, deceleration and passing lanes, improved traffic signal control, etc.), rather than the SCDOT’s expensive and destructive proposal to move vast quantities of earth and lay down acres of new pavement. By taking the common-sense approach, current and future needs can be accommodated in a responsible, integrated, non-destructive and cost-effective way.
Many of the roadways in Aiken County (and throughout South Carolina) are in poor condition, begging for repair. Additionally, more than 20 percent of the bridges in Aiken County are rated “structurally deficient.” That’s 36 structurally deficient bridges, having average daily crossings of 141,000 vehicles.
According to SCDOT officials, there currently is grossly inadequate funding to properly maintain the existing roadways. The “new” Hitchcock Parkway will significantly add to that backlog. Did you know that South Carolina legislators are currently considering an increase in the already-high state sales tax, in order to begin to work on the deferred roadway maintenance?
The parkway proposal is surely not the highest priority and best use of tens of millions of our dollars, and hopefully our elected representatives have learned lessons from the recent Silver Bluff Road experience. The expenditure of limited tax revenue must be made based on critical analysis of real – not imagined – priorities.
We should not have to fight so hard and so long to try to ensure that common sense does not, again, become the victim of ill-conceived schemes. Our money should be spent improving community assets, not degrading them.
Bob Gilbert is a registered professional engineer who has been traveling Hitchcock Parkway daily for 24 years. He has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from The Citadel, a master’s degree in civil engineering from Georgia Tech, and an MBA from Pitt.