COLUMBIA Transportation officials say the unusual move to close lanes in one direction of a 15-mile stretch of interstate in South Carolina will save taxpayers time and money, but critics contend the eight-month detour is a costly hassle.
South Carolina's first closure of an interstate for repairs, beginning at 12:01 a.m. Monday, will block drivers from taking Interstate 385 between Intertate 26 and Greenville. The $61 million project includes removal of deteriorated asphalt, replacement of it with 10 inches of concrete and the addition of inside shoulders to the former U.S. 276, which was converted to an interstate 25 years ago.
"It will definitely affect us negatively as far as efficiency and ease of delivery," said Stan Nutt, a director at Gaston-based G&P Trucking Co., and president of the Charleston Motor Carriers Association. "It just causes a disruption in everything."
The increased costs will either eat into profits or be passed along to customers, he said.
The closure of the northbound lanes is expected to last through mid-August, opening in time for football season at Clemson University. Southbound lanes will remain open throughout the project shifted to the newly constructed northbound lanes about halfway through when crews begin working on the other side of the road.
The state provided an incentive to help ensure the deadline is met: It will pay an additional $25,000 for each day the project is early and deduct $50,000 daily beyond Aug. 16.
Meanwhile, drivers can either stay on I-26 to Spartanburg and take Interstate 85 to the state's northwest corner, or drive on secondary roads through small towns and stoplights.
"We'll just take our lumps and go to Spartanburg and go around," said Pat Barber, owner of Mount Pleasant-based Superior Transportation and a vice chairman of the South Carolina Trucking Association.
The roughly 20 extra miles will cost his company at least $10 more in fuel per trip, and up to 25 of his trucks use I-385 each day for deliveries. The per-trip cost in time and money could be much more, depending on traffic on I-26 and fuel cost fluctuations, he said.
"We're just going to eat it. We're not going to push it on the customers because we just don't see where it's their problem," he said, noting that competition is prompting other trucking companies to do the same.
However, Barber said he understands the reasoning and believes it's a safer way to reconstruct the roadway.
"It's a bitter pill to swallow, but in the grand scheme of things, we'll end up with a better quality product because they can concentrate on construction, rather than traffic control, and get the job done more quickly," he said.
The state Trucking Association supports the decision, said president and chief executive Rick Todd.
"Are we happy about it? No. But in the big picture, things wear out and you have to fix them," he said. "Detours for truckers is a way of life. We see a lot of orange cones as we go about our business."
Department of Transportation officials say the traditional construction method of closing one lane at a time for up to two-mile stretches would cost an additional $35 million and add more than a year to the project.
Experience backs that up, said I-385 project manager Rob Perry: A 15-mile stretch from the current project to Greenville, completed in 2003, cost $90 million and took three years. He said an agency analysis found drivers would also spend more money if speeds were reduced and lanes limited for three years, compared to an eight-month closure.
"The premise for this plan was to 'get in and get out quickly' and provide a rehabilitated interstate that won't require extensive maintenance for decades to come," the agency says in a brochure.
The original pavement constructed more than 50 years ago can't handle the increasing traffic. Traffic along the 15-mile stretch averaged 21,900 trips daily in 2007. That's expected to grow to 38,325 by 2027, according to the agency.
"That road failed a long time ago," Barber said.