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Opponents to building a flyover interchange to connect Bluffton Parkway and U.S. 278 put up a strong last-minute fight, but they didn't persuade Beaufort County Council, and they didn't offer a convincing, long-term alternative -- not in the last month nor in the last six years.
The Bluffton Parkway extension is the most hotly debated road project since the Cross Island Parkway on Hilton Head Island in the early 1990s, and we suspect the post-debate will end the same. The flyover interchange will be built, people will get used to its appearance, and they will come to appreciate the way it moves traffic in the area, particularly the way it helps relieve traffic on U.S. 278.
The county should stick to its pledge to improve its appearance, and Hilton Head's Town Council, which pulled its support of the flyover interchange earlier this month, should support the effort financially.
But the debate offers some lessons that should be heeded before the next debate heats up (and that could come with the proposed Bluffton Parkway realignment between Buck Island Road and Buckwalter Parkway.) The most important lesson: When road projects are being considered and lines starting getting drawn on maps -- well before money is lined up and contracts are about to be signed -- pay attention and speak up.
We don't buy the argument that because a flyover wasn't specifically mentioned in the 2006 referendum for the 1 percent sales tax to pay for road projects, it means voters were duped. The interchange design was on the table in 2006 before the vote, and it was part of the route County Council approved in 2008 after two years of discussion and many adjustments to the plan. The idea of connecting the parkway to U.S. 278 near what is now the BMW dealership was specifically rejected and rightly so.
Neither do we buy the argument that because the project was listed on the ballot in 2006, that voters approved the specific project or its specific execution. That's the kind of logic used to justify moving ahead with the Whale Branch Early College High School when enrollment numbers and projected growth didn't warrant its construction. Voters are asked to approve a group of projects in these ballot questions; we don't vote project by project. A "yes" vote should not be interpreted as a ringing endorsement for any one project on the list.
That said, extending Bluffton Parkway eastward from Burnt Church Road has proved a valuable addition to our road system. It provides critical secondary road access to major shopping centers on U.S. 278, including Tanger Outlets 1 and 2 and the Lowe's center on Malphrus Road. It also provides a much-needed alternative to U.S. 278, the only way on and off Hilton Head.
That means its design should make it as easy as possible to enter and exit Bluffton Parkway as vehicles travel to and from Hilton Head. The engineers hired to study and design this project stand by the flyover design.
It's doubtful we will see another expansive road project list like that drawn up in 2006, when southern Beaufort County was reeling from a building boom the likes of which we probably won't see again. Long lists of projects designed to appeal to as many voters as possible don't always result in the most productive use of tax dollars. The community would benefit from shorter, more targeted, detailed project lists to consider in a ballot question.
For their part, voters should make sure they understand what they're saying "yes" to.
And when voters do say "yes," officials in charge of spending the money must be ready to change or walk away from projects that no longer make sense.
In the case of connecting Bluffton Parkway to U.S. 278, the flyover interchange still makes sense.