Keep focus on smart road, bridge projects

Will the revised Hitchcock Parkway project succeed where its bloated and intrusive predecessor failed? The original Hitchcock Parkway – with its $35 million to $40 million price tag – met its demise late last year when it couldn’t secure adequate funding.

 

The revised project, currently under consideration by the South Carolina Augusta Regional Transportation Study, or SCARTS, may have a rosier future.

 

As described by Aiken City Manager Roger LeDuc, the trimmed down project will focus on turning and passing lanes, paved shoulders and signal improvements.

 

The price tag is much more affordable: conceptually in the $10 million to $15 million range, with perhaps $5 million more tacked on if the scope expands to include resurfacing the roadway.

 

The revised parkway could be successful on numerous fronts: it will be less intrusive, less expensive and more politically palatable. It may also continue Aiken’s trend towards smaller, more incrementally beneficial road projects such as the ongoing Silver Bluff Road project.

 

Recall that Silver Bluff was to be widened to five lanes all the way down to Richardson’s Lake Road. After a deafening outcry from citizens in both Woodside and Gem Lakes, the project scope was scaled back to a cheaper but still beneficial design emphasizing intersection improvements and turning lanes.

 

Other modest improvements have proven successful. The re-configuration of Fabian Drive below Pine Log Road and between Silver Bluff and Whiskey Road took cars off those busy thoroughfares and helped relieve congestion. The addition of turning lanes at Silver Bluff and Dougherty Road, and at Hitchcock Parkway and Highway 1, made noticeable improvements to traffic flow.

 

Two similarly modest projects may begin construction later this year.

 

The first project adds an additional right turn lane from Doughterty Road onto Whiskey. The $1.6 million cost includes engineering, right-of-way acquisition, utility relocations and construction, with the turning lane on Doughterty extending back to a point between Murrah Avenue and Christee Place. It will be funded with State Infrastructure Bank dollars.

 

The second project will extend Christee Place a couple of hundred feet into the Publix shopping center parking lot. This achieves the “holy grail” for many Southsiders – access to the Aiken Mall without the need to travel on Whiskey. Compared to other projects, the $350,000 in Capital Projects Sales Tax dollars invested should result in a high benefit-to-cost ratio.

 

A larger project, the widening of University Parkway and re-orienting its intersection with the Robert M. Bell Parkway, is moderately scoped. Its $10.6 million cost will be covered by $4.6 million from the State Infrastructure Bank and $3 million apiece from Aiken County and the City of Aiken.

 

These smaller, more narrowly focused projects are necessary as sales tax revenues decline. Aiken County, with $13 million in Capital Projects Sales Tax 3 budgeted for infrastructure partnerships with Aiken and North Augusta, will probably have only half that amount available to spend.

 

Likewise, the City of Aiken shelved its $5.5 million in Capital Projects Sales Tax 3 funding for the long anticipated Whiskey-Powderhouse Connector Road because of lags in sales tax collections.

 

Clearly, transportation planners and elected officials should initiate only those projects with the greatest need and the greatest bang per buck.

 

But wherever possible, limited infrastructure dollars should be prioritized towards the maintenance of existing roads over the construction of new roads. It’s nonsensical, as well as fiscally irresponsible, to continue laying down massive amounts of new blacktop when existing roads are crumbling.

 

If the ax must fall, let it land on new projects before decapitating maintenance resources. Aiken County, for instance, has millions in Capital Projects Sales Tax 3 for the resurfacing of existing roads. These dollars must be defended to the bitter end.

 

So does the revised Hitchcock Parkway have a future? At this point, the City of Aiken intends to fund this project out of Augusta Regional Transportation Study allocations. And after its predecessor’s cancellation and the change in its “Purpose and Needs” statement, the City must start back at square one. It hopes to secure funding and complete construction within five years.

 

Going down this road won’t please those who wanted the whole five-lane enchilada. But it should satisfy those who opposed the original project – most of whom favored more modest improvements anyway. A glass-half-full for all is better than nothing.

 

And the City should help the project along by engaging impacted homeowners and other stakeholders early on. If it can demonstrate cost control, hold back scope creep, and maximize its beneficial aspects, then the revised Hitchcock Parkway project may prove to be a winner after all.

 

Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County Councilman.

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PAID FOR BY GARY BUNKER

FOR AIKEN COUNCIL COUNCIL CHAIRMAN