The City of Aiken's concept for the Hitchcock Parkway widening project drew heavy criticism during its unveiling at the H. Odell Weeks Activities Center on Thursday night even though it required the use of less land around the road than the S.C. Department of Transportation's plan.

More than 60 people showed up to get a look at the City's alternative proposal, and many expressed disappointment and frustration that it included a four-lane instead of a three-lane design. They pointed out that many residents in the area already had expressed their preference for an expansion to only three lanes or no expansion at all.

“What a mess,” said Bob Gilbert, an outspoken opponent of the widening project, after learning about the details of the concept. “It looks like I-20.”

The City of Aiken hired W.R. Toole Engineers of Augusta to prepare the concept. Rick Toole, the president of the company, presented the plan using a PowerPoint presentation and a short video as well as drawings and photos displayed on easels.

Toole said his company's efforts focused on assessing traffic volume and growth projections, determining if the required roadway improvements could be constructed in the existing right-of-way and incorporating a “parkway” theme into the concept that emphasized the appearance of a greenway as much as possible.

The concept W.R. Toole Engineers developed would allow the expansion of the road from two to four lanes to be completed within the existing right-of-way for the most part.

“There is some possibility to have some minor takings in different places, but it is about as minimal as we could get it,” Rick Toole said.

The W.R. Toole proposal included adding a median to Hitchcock Parkway that could be landscaped, reducing the width of lanes from 12 feet to 11 feet, and the adding decorative retaining walls, curbs and gutters.

The widening project has a budget of $26 million, according to Aiken City Manager Richard Pearce, and is scheduled to take place on 4.8 miles of Hitchcock Parkway from Silver Bluff Road to Jefferson Davis Highway (U.S. 1).

“I don't like the idea of four lanes, period,” said Janis Hartline, whose lives in the Hitchcock Parkway area. “I just want turn lanes and slight improvements. However, they have decreased the footprint in this concept from the original plan and that does make it more feasible. But again, I do not think this should be capacity driven because I don't think capacity is a problem between U.S. 1 and Silver Bluff Road. The problem is at the ends, at Silver Bluff Road and U.S. 1.”

Larry Byers expressed a similar opinion, describing Hitchcock Parkway as being like a glass cylinder half full of water with corks at each end.

“No matter how I turn the cylinder, the water flows freely until it gets to those two ends, which are U.S. 1 and Silver Bluff Road,” he said. “The only problem we have with capacity is at the ends of Hitchcock Parkway and not in the middle. The problems could be solved by making this an improvement project rather than a widening. There is need for improvement, but it doesn't necessarily require widening the entire Parkway.”

Byers received an enthusiastic round of applause as did Gilbert when he discussed the condition of the Palmetto State's roads in general while expressing additional opposition to the concept.

“South Carolina doesn't have the money now to maintain the current road system and bridge system,” he said. “Twenty percent of the bridges in Aiken County are rated as structurally deficient. One only has to travel our roads to see what terrible shape they're in, generally speaking. And here we have this advocacy by our government to build acres and acres of more pavement when we can't maintain what's there already while the state legislature is talking about increasing the sales tax so we can start maintaining what is already there. It just seems like 'Alice in Wonderland.' ”

Prior to Rick Toole's presentation, Pearce said: “Tonight is about ideas. This is not a not a final design. This is a concept, which is what Hitchcock Parkway could look like.”

There were forms that each member of the audience could fill out that had space for suggestions. The City of Aiken's Hitchcock Parkway concept will be available for viewing again on July 2 at 6 p.m. at St. Paul Lutheran Church at 961 Trail Ridge Road.

Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.