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After more than 16 years of working traffic accidents in Sheldon, there are few surprises left for Fire Chief Buddy Jones when he responds to a crash on U.S. 17.'
"Any time we have a wreck on U.S. 17, we always expect the worst," he said.'
A string of accidents on the road from June 23 to 25 left four dead and at least eight injured and has brought attention to the dangerous highway. But calls last week for studies and task forces on the dangers of the thin 22-mile stretch of federal highway aren't what Jones would like to hear.'
"That's the last thing us out there working those accidents want to hear," he said Friday. "They've studied it enough. They need to get the funds and fix the road."'
With each death, efforts in Beaufort, Charleston, Columbia and Washington have ramped up the desire, despite the lack of dollars, to widen the road. The latest fatalities prompted an immediate response to limit the dangers on the road.'
Spotlighted on a May episode of "Dateline NBC" that studied the nation's most dangerous roads, U.S. 17 has been home to 11 traffic deaths in the past 18 months, far outpacing the 21 fatalities on the stretch in the previous seven years.'
Long-cemented expectations that improvements would be too costly or would pose unreasonable stress on the delicate marsh habitat have limited improvements to three short four-lane portions and shelved plans for a more substantial widening.'
But the March 2004 Navy bus accident that killed three sailors and wounded more than 70 garnered national attention and brought regulatory agencies to the table for a quick, acceptable compromise.'
The state paid nearly $8 million in advance work for the project, including initial design plans due this month, environmental studies ready in November and permitting applications expected in January.'
The climbing death toll also has compelled local, state and federal representatives to press harder for about $110 million likely needed to pay for the widening, with an understanding that pockets from Beaufort to Washington may need to be picked to find the money. '
Temporary improvements are under way. Transportation Commissioner John Hardee said last week that the state will install rumble strips down the median to alert drivers crossing the center line and provide lighting strips to better illuminate the road. The department also is expected to consider lowering the speed limit, which is welcome news to Jones.'
"You see more injuries because of the speed of the accidents," he said.'
In late July, the state Department of Transportation will hold a public information meeting on the proposed widening. Plans will include widening medians, adding turning lanes and recommended improvements at intersections.'
The first work on widening the road will be the replacement of the Combahee River Bridge. The $9.5 million project, paid for through state bridge replacement funding, should begin construction early next year. The new bridge will be wide enough for four lanes but will remain a two-lane stretch until neighboring portions of the highway can be widened, said Wilson Elgin, project manager for the Transportation Department.'
Intersection improvements in Jacksonboro also are planned to begin next summer. The $700,000 project, paid for with state intersection improvement money, will include redesigning the complicated S.C. 64 intersection, which would likely include a new traffic light.'
"We wanted to go ahead and do what we could," Elgin said.'
Once plans are developed for an improved Gardens Corner intersection later this year, Elgin said the work could receive similar funding and be developed ahead of the rest of the widening project.'
Recognizing the momentum to move the project forward, officials are digging deep for funding, noting that planning won't pave the road.'
"Everyone is in favor of a task force, and everyone is in favor of immediate action, but money is what we don't have," said Rep. Thayer Rivers, D-Ridgeland.'
Cost projections of $110 million to widen the road are based on a standard Transportation Department estimate that it takes $5 million to widen one mile of highway. But the unique needs of the 22-mile stretch, including more than a mile of potential bridge or infill work near the Combahee River, could force those costs to climb.'
Elgin said plans are to divide the project into at least three parts -- the 6 miles in Beaufort County and two portions of the road through Colleton County -- and widen each part as funding becomes available.'
Local efforts last year to provide $6.6 million in funding for an improved Gardens Corner intersection, turning lanes at three intersections on the highway and limited widening were rejected by voters in November as part of a list of 33 projects with a total $121 million pricetag.'
County Council Chairman Weston Newton said the county will go back to voters next year with a renewed proposal to pay for the county's road needs, including U.S. 17.'
The county also has provided $2 million for widening through northern Beaufort County impact fees, charged to builders for the increased stress that their development puts on local roads.'
"That's significant that local government isn't looking for someone to bail out the situation," Newton said.'
But the state needs to bring more funding to U.S. 17 and other Lowcountry road needs instead of the persistent reliance on Beaufort taxpayers, he said.'
"Our legislature is going to have to quit avoiding the issue and recognize the funding shortage," the chairman said.'
In June, the state legislature opened up about $72 million in annual revenue for the state's road system that had been diverted toward other budget needs, but at least half of that money will go toward maintenance of secondary roads. '
Sen. Scott Richardson, R-Hilton Head Island, said about $36 million set aside for larger capital projects could be bonded for more funding and get projects like U.S. 17 started, but it will have competition.'
"There's a lot of projects out there, and there hasn't been any funding," he said. '
Held at under 17 cents for more than 18 years, the gas tax that pays for most of the Transportation Department's road needs likely won't see an increase until at least 2007, Rivers said. '
"It's not remotely possible in an election year," he said.'
If there isn't additional money allocated for the state's roads, Richardson said he may propose using some of the state's general operation funds to cover road improvement costs.'
In recent years, Congress has provided traffic-strapped U.S. 278 with more than $5 million for improvements. '
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., has proposed the widening project receive $68 million of an about $286 billion federal highway bill. Congress has until July 19 to approve the six-year plan for state disbursements, but the deadline follows a string of delays and extensions.'
With the support of fellow Reps. Henry Brown, R-S.C., and Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., Wilson said campaigning for the funding won't be difficult.'
"The numbers speak for themselves," he said. "It's a very dangerous highway."'
<b>Rough road ahead</b>'
When money becomes available, transportation officials expect to be ready with permits in place for construction.'
Accidents are far from uncommon on the stretch of highway, but after the Navy accident, widening that had been avoided for decades could not be ignored.'
The growing number of fatalities has spurred permitting agencies, including the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard, and commenting agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and federal and state fisheries groups, to help streamline advance work, said Wayne Hall, an environmental manager for the Transportation Department.'
As the department moves through surveys and studies, the outside agencies are coming together on an almost monthly basis to raise questions in advance of permit applications.'
"We have early identification of any issues and concerns and can solve them in the process," Hall said, noting the advance work could cut the permitting process in half.'
A time-consuming environmental impact statement could have been required by the regulatory agencies for the project, adding about four to six years to the project in advance of permitting, Hall said.'
After the Navy accidents, all parties agreed to a less-detailed environmental assessment that the Transportation Department expects to have completed in November in advance of permitting applications in early 2006.'
Running through the ACE Basin, a collection of preserves and easements surrounding the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers, widening efforts will have to account for the impact on wetlands and wildlife that fill the area.'
While conservation groups have been blamed in the past for slowing the process or weighing down the cost, Mike McShane, chairman of the ACE Basin Task Force, said the group has been working with the Department of Transportation to find affordable ways to widen the road and protect the environment.'
"It's selfish reasons," McShane said. "We all drive that road, too."'
One proposal still under consideration includes wetlands buffers that would protect 100 feet on the roadway from the kinds of development that tends to crop up on four-lane roads.'
All the parties understand that everyone might not get everything they want in the widening, McShane said.'
"It's going to require compromise from all parties," he said.'
Rep. Catherine Ceips, R-Beaufort, has called for an advocacy group to campaign on every level to get the road widened. But her chief concern, echoed by most of the officials involved, is that the most recent deaths and the dozens in the past few years will fade from attention until the next tragedy.'
"Unless there's an accident out there," she said, "people forget about it."