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State highway officials scrambled Thursday to resurrect plans to widen a 22-mile stretch of U.S. 17 less than a week after a wreck on the two-lane highway killed three sailors in Beaufort County.'
Under a plan unanimously approved by the state Highway Commission, state transportation officials will pursue the environmental permits necessary to widen the road, create engineering plans and come up with a cost estimate for the project.'
"I'm just so pleased (the commission) moved so quickly with such a positive response to a very dangerous highway," state Rep. Catherine Ceips, R-Beaufort, said from Columbia on Thursday.'
Ceips is one of many state and local officials who in the wake of last Friday's four-vehicle wreck that sent more than 70 people to area hospitals, have thrown their support behind widening that section of the major coastal highway.'
On Wednesday, Highway Commission member Bob Harrell said he wanted the Transportation Department to "fast-track" plans to widen the 22-mile stretch. Harrell said it would cost at least $200 million to widen the road.'
But some S.C. Department of Transportation officials don't know that there's even a widening plan to fast track.'
"It's easy for a commissioner to say 'put something on the fast track'," said Pete Poore, spokesman for the Transportation Department, "but it boils down to what does that really mean?"'
State and local officials have pursued plans to widen the road in the past but have either seen those plans scaled down or abandoned.'
A proposal to four-lane the road through Beaufort and Colleton counties stalled 15 years ago when state officials ran into difficulties with environmental permitting.'
The original widening plan would have filled in 122 acres of wetlands, the most ever allowed under a state permit. Any plan to widen the road and fill wetlands will still have to be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.'
A task force of state officials and environmentalists came up with a $25 million plan to build a four-lane highway that was more environmentally sensitive and scenic, saving 30 percent of the wetlands.'
"We came up with an agreement that would have served the transportation, environmental and safety needs of the area," said Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League.'
But the road was never built. Instead, transportation officials added a lane to each side of the road over three small sections to provide passing lanes.'
Harrell said he hopes last week's accident creates a sense of urgency that would help accelerate the environmental planning process this time around.'
"It's time to have the corps take those proposals out and dust them off," he said Thursday. "The magnitude of this tragedy is so great it has really softened a lot of peoples' hearts."'
Lady's Island resident David Gasque, who's 20-year-old son died in a wreck on U.S. 17 in January, said he's more worried about safety than the environment.'
"I'm not going to argue environment and I'm not going to argue wetlands," Gasque said Wednesday during a public hearing on what road projects should be included in a November Beaufort County sales-tax referendum. "But there aren't a million acres out there worth my children's life."'
Even if state officials receive the environmental permitting to widen the road, finding money to pay for the project could prove difficult.'
In a statement released hours after last Friday's wreck, state officials said the Transportation Department doesn't have any money to widen U.S. 17'
"This section of U.S. 17 is not currently funded for any improvements in the State Transportation Improvement Plan," the release states.'
But John Hardee, Beaufort County's representative on the six-member Highway Commission, said the state will pursue all avenues to find money for the widening project.'
"To me, the biggest problem is going to be getting the environmental permitting," he said. "We're going to find the funding because it's something that cannot be delayed. It has to happen."'
Funding for the U.S. 17 project has been a popular topic during deliberations over which road improvements a six-member county tax commission should include in its list of projects to be put before county voters as a referendum in November.'
The project, which would be paid for through a special 1 cent sales tax, has made several area wish lists including the one presented by Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner on Wednesday.'
"That road between Gardens Corner and the Combahee River needs drastic improvement," he told the tax commission.'
County Council Chairman Weston Newton said county and municipal officials have held informal discussions on including the U.S. 17 widening in a list of projects funded through impact fees.'
The fees, charged to developers to help offset the cost of building new roads, haven't been charged in northern Beaufort County since 2000, when Beaufort and Port Royal backed out of the program.'
But Newton said the fees could be reinstated by June and U.S. 17 could be one of the projects they pay for.'
"Recent activities have brought highway 17 back into focus and County Council is obviously concerned with that roadway," he said.'
Ceips said the commission realizes the project will be expensive and will deal with the funding problem when a cost estimate is provided.'
"It's going to be a long process but we're moving through it a lot quicker than I thought," she said.'
Several transportation officials, including Elizabeth Mabry, executive director of the Transportation Department, will be at Monday's County Council meeting to discuss roadwork on S.C. 170 and U.S. 21.'
While state officials don't plan to discuss U.S. 17, Newton said Monday's meeting could be an opportunity to find out what the county could do to help advance the project.'
The County Council will meet at 4 p.m. in council chambers of the county administration building, 100 Ribaut Road.