Originally created 01/16/98

Hilton Head toll road to open



HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- There is a new sight on this posh resort island dotted with golf courses, tennis courts and trendy boutiques -- toll booths.

Three toll stations, to be exact, along South Carolina's first toll road in recent times, the 6.8-mile Cross Island Parkway that opens Friday.

While motorists have dropped coins in toll baskets in other states for years, South Carolinians have driven without them for almost 40 years. Now tolls are getting a second look as officials seek new road money.

Another toll road is planned near Greenville, and tolls have been proposed for a suburban Charleston expressway.

The last time South Carolina drivers paid a toll is believed to be in the late 1950s when it cost $2.50 to cross a private bridge onto Hilton Head. The state abolished the toll when it later took over the bridge.

"As we find our highway resources dwindling, it's becoming more common to use tolls," said Neil Schuster, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. "We are seeing with some of the more expensive projects that gas tax revenue alone may not be enough."

Tolls are also used to get roads built more quickly, as was the case with the $81 million Cross Island Parkway. It is an alternative to U.S. 278, the asphalt spine of Hilton Head that leads to resorts like Sea Pines Plantation, the site of the MCI Heritage golf and the Family Circle Magazine Cup tennis tournaments.

On a bad day in tourist season, it can take almost an hour to wind along the 12-mile route from the mainland to the end of the island.

In the 1980s, the state said it had no money for the parkway and that tolls would be needed if it were to be built any time soon.

The four-lane parkway veers off from the main road as motorists arrive on the island. They will drive along four miles of expressway, pay $1 at a forest green toll plaza, then cross a graceful bridge arching over Broad Creek. There are two unmanned toll stations at a nearby exit.

"I've been waiting for this bridge for 40 years," said Mike Lynes, a builder who grew up on the island. "I'm not crazy about the toll, but if that's what it takes to get the bridge, bring it on."

The last section of parkway is free and, like the old main road, lined with restaurants, hotels and boutiques.

For the first month, the entire highway will be free so motorists can get used to the new route.

"It's wonderful for anyone living on the island full time. But it's going to open things up to more crowding," said Jack Vukelic, a retired businessman and island resident who doesn't mind the toll.

Some islanders opposed the parkway. Build it, they argued, and too many people will come. People will come anyway, proponents said.

"The idea was incorrect that if we didn't build the road that magically somehow people would stop coming," Mayor Tom Peeples said. He predicted that many of the 13,000 local workers who live off the island will use the highway.

There may be more toll roads in South Carolina's future, but they are likely to be alternate routes like the parkway, said H.B. "Buck" Limehouse, chairman of the state Transportation Commission.

It is a harder sell to require tolls to improve existing roads people already use, he said.

"We should not deprive the public of the use of routes they have come to rely on to go to and from work," Mr. Limehouse said.

Image-conscious Hilton Head residents did request that their new road, originally called the Cross Island Expressway, be renamed a parkway -- not surprising in a town that once required the Red Roof Inn to install a brown roof.