Column: Once more down the rocky road to a solution
The Aiken City Council decided on Aug. 12 to proceed with two similar designs for widening the Hitchcock Parkway. Both designs are based on four lanes, though they can also be described as “five lanes” due to the center median.
This decision, at least temporarily, was a setback to the large majorities opposing the four-lane concept at the Aug. 12 City Council meeting and the July 2 public input meeting.
Those favoring a more limited approach based on intersection improvements and targeted enhancements of the existing roadway may see their opportunity come later this year. If public opinion remains solidly against the four-lane proposals, the City Council will need to consider alternatives.
Despite this decision, the controversy shows little sign of abatement. The war of words has only begun.
Four-lane proponents have labeled their foes as “irresponsible” and an “idiocracy.” To them, it’s simply obvious that four lanes are necessary to relieve congestion and increase safety.
Project opponents, conversely, believe that the City Council and the S.C. Department of Tranportation don’t take their concerns seriously. It’s equally obvious to them that a four-lane asphalt gash through their neighborhoods isn’t warranted. They also question the use of scarce infrastructure dollars on this project given maintenance needs on local roads and bridges.
Both sides claim a majority: opponents point to a clear majority of comments by the citizenry to be opposed to SCDOT’s plan, while proponents claim a more nebulous “silent majority” on their side.
Of course, the more ambitious the plan, the more difficult the financing becomes.
City Manager Richard Pearce recently estimated the four-lane project cost as between $30 million and $36 million. Other estimates have put the total above $40 million. (Depending on unforeseen circumstances, the final total could be higher.)
To date, $26 million is available: $13 million in federal money from the State Transportation Improvement Program, $9 million from the State Infrastructure Bank, and $4 million from the City of Aiken’s portion of Capital Project Sales Tax 3.
To make up the shortfall, the city will likely request additional funding from both the State Infrastructure Bank and Aiken County.
Indeed, Aiken County’s portion of the Capital Project Sales Tax 3 ballot included: “$13 million for jointly-funded projects with the cities of Aiken and North Augusta including roads, utilities, parking and other infrastructure related to the development of the new county office complex; Hitchcock Parkway; University Parkway; Powderhouse Connector Road; Martintown/Knobcone intersection improvements; Palmetto Parkway.”
Significantly, the ballot didn’t divide the $13 million by project. Therefore, the potential level of support from Aiken County is yet to be determined.
On County Council, the attitudes of the resident councilmen are usually decisive on issues impacting individual districts. From this perspective, Councilmen Andrew Siders is a key player since the bulk of the parkway cuts across District 7.
“Everyone recognizes the need for improvements on Hitchcock Parkway,” Siders said. “We need improved turning lanes, and maybe some widening in the existing right of way, but we need to keep the parkway feel. I favor something similar to the Silver Bluff Road solution.”
Regarding conditions for Aiken County’s participation in the project, Siders insists that, “It must be an acceptable plan based on common sense and cost effective improvements.” And to date, Siders hasn’t been impressed with what he’s seen of the various proposals.
Those favoring a more limited approach, however, face their own set of obstacles.
The Silver Bluff plan, originally five lanes, is unofficially known as the “three lane” solution: one lane in each direction between Indian Creek and Richardsons Lake Road, with the generous provision of interlocking turning lanes comprising the “third lane.”
To get there, however, the Augusta Regional Transportation Study committee, also known as S.C. ARTS, governing the project had to change the project’s “Purpose and Needs” statement from “Capacity Driven” to “Corridor Improvement / Operational Improvements.”
This was the pivot on which everything else turned. This change permitted consideration of the more limited option, thereby achieving a reasonably acceptable compromise with concerned citizens.
If S.C. ARTS changed the Hitchcock Parkway “Purpose and Needs,” other alternatives similar to the Silver Bluff plan could be studied. This would provide more data than two similar four-lane designs. Without the change, project planning will continue down the four-lane path.
But the city won’t consider the limited alternatives until the four-lane designs are completed and public comment is received.
Yet given the overwhelmingly, negative response to the initial four-lane proposal, its difficult imagining how the new designs will change public perceptions.
In the meantime, the war of words will continue.
Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County Councilman.