Originally created 02/22/98

Expressway extension may not get funds



AIKEN -- The Aiken County Council sent an application for money to build it.

The Aiken County legislative delegation formed a committee to push for it in Columbia.

But the proposed extension of the Bobby Jones Expressway into Aiken County may not get construction funds this year from the state infrastructure bank for a simple reason.

The application for funding missed the Dec. 31 deadline. And that could set the process back by about a year.

The state infrastructure bank, created a year ago to help fund large highway projects, will most likely send the application back to the county in March with instructions to send it again in time for the December deadline, said Champ Covington, chairman of the bank's board of directors.

"Aiken isn't the only one that got theirs in late," he said.

But the original brochure for the infrastructure bank didn't specify a deadline, said Phil England, planning director for Aiken County. Plus the bank gives priority to projects that are partially locally funded, he said.

The South Carolina subcommittee of the Augusta Regional Transportation Study did not have a local funding commitment last year and didn't press the issue, he said.

Aiken County Council sent its application in early February because not sending it would guarantee the project would have no funding, he said.

If the county had met the deadline, the proposed expressway would have been evaluated against three other highway projects according to the bank's point system. Categories such as the project's public benefit, financial plan and project approach are given a numerical value. The project with the highest total gets priority.

The bank would then would have issued bonds or similar financial activities to raise money for the project. The bank is not the only source of funds for these projects, and the recipients must set a schedule for paying the bank back.

The bank is funded by surplus funds from the state, so no one knows exactly how much it will have from year to year, Mr. Covington said. In its first year of operation, the bank had $65 million, he said.

The Bobby Jones Expressway extension has been the dream of Aiken County legislators since the 1970s. The $120 million project would extend the limited-access Augusta beltway across the Savannah River at Sandbar Ferry Road, cut through North Augusta and join Interstate 20 near Exit 5. The county is asking the bank to raise $108 million.

And building that highway is important to the area for a number of reasons, said state Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley.

"Look at the Bobby Jones Expressway in Georgia," he said. "It's developed from Highway 56 all the way into the Martinez area. We think the same thing is going to happen on this side. "

The expressway would not only make life easier for commuters, but spur new business growth. The new road would bring Georgia shoppers across the river to take advantage of the lower sales tax, he said.

But some experts disagree. Augusta still has most of the retail shopping centers, and the expressway could make it easier to get there, said Davis Folsom, professor of economics and marketing at University of South Carolina at Aiken.

"What does North Augusta have that Augusta doesn't have? Not much," he said.

The new expressway would make the trip to Bush Field airport a lot easier, but impact on local retailing would be minimal, he said.

It would have an immediate positive impact for manufacturers, said Fred Humes, director of the Economic Development Partnership for Aiken and Edgefield counties. Part of the expressway would run through the North Augusta Industrial Park.

"It would open up 70, maybe 100 acres of land," he said.

But because the proposed expressway crosses a river and runs close to a subdivision, it won't open many new areas to manufacturing, he said.

State highway projects

The following are some of the state highway projects under consideration by the South Carolina infrastructure bank:

  • South Carolina Highway 170 in Beaufort: Beaufort County wants to spend $140 million to improve the highway. The price is high because the plan has more than 1.5 miles of bridges. The county's funding application describes the current highway as "arguably the most dangerous transportation corridor in the state."
  • Cooper River Bridges near Charleston: Parts of the 2.5-mile bridge system linking East Cooper and Charleston are functionally obsolete. County officials are requesting $400 million.
  • The Upstate Grid in Anderson, Greenville and Spartanburg counties: Officials are asking for $706 million to upgrade interstates and build new parkways and connectors. Bank funds would be used mostly for connecting Interstate 85 to a new parkway.
  • State Routes 6 and 60 widening in Lexington County. Officials are asking for $139 million. Total cost is expected to be around $221 million.