Originally created 05/01/00

Officials want funds to finish interstate loop



It took nearly 30 years of planning and construction for Bobby Jones Expressway to reach the Savannah River.

Some think it might take that long for South Carolina to come up with funding needed to bring the long-awaited interstate loop across the river to Aiken County.

Others, however, are confident this could be the year money begins to trickle in.

"I'm hopeful this is the beginning of it, that we kick it off this year," said South Carolina Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken.

While Mr. Ryberg and members of the state delegation work on legislation to fund the state's currently empty "infrastructure bank" -- the special surplus fund used to finance major projects -- members of the local government are considering a special 1-cent sales tax to raise the required local matching funds.

The "capital projects tax," is similar to Georgia's special-purpose local-option sales tax and would have to be approved by Aiken County voters in a referendum.

It would have to be approved by the nine-member Aiken County Commission even before going to a public vote.

Aiken commissioner Eddie Butler, a supporter of the expressway project, said the tax could raise anywhere between $50 million to $80 million during its seven-year life span.

The Bobby Jones project would require a local match of about $30 million to obtain the estimated $90 million to $100 million in state and federal money needed to finish the interstate loop.

Remaining special tax revenue could fund a host of other projects countywide, Mr. Butler said.

Under state law, the revenue can be applied to projects such as recreational facilities, rural road paving and utility line upgrades.

"Some parts of the county may not want roads; they may want something else," he said.

Mr. Butler and other sales tax supporters would have to get the referendum on the November ballot or wait two more years.

Project backers are hoping that doesn't happen, as the long-anticipated project has seen more than its share of delays.

"This is one of the last interstate links that hasn't been completed yet," said Skip Grkovic, North Augusta's director of economic and community development.

The county's lack of financial commitment has resulted in several missed opportunities since the infrastructure bank was established in 1997.

The bank funds big-ticket construction projects by using surplus state funds to borrow additional money through revenue bonds approved by the legislature.

"The bottom line is all five infrastructure bank projects have been completed or started except for Bobby Jones," Mr. Butler said. "That's because all the others came up with local matches. And if for some reason we don't get (state funding), then the worst we've done is come up with $50 to $80 million in funding for county projects."

The most recent snag in the expressway funding saga occurred earlier this year when the South Carolina Department of Transportation took the expressway extension off a list of priority projects it sent to members of the state's congressional delegation.

"I immediately fired off a letter asking why it wasn't on the list," Mr. Ryberg said. "The reply said the only projects included on the list were ones for which funds had been committed for construction."

The unfinished South Carolina portion consists of two phases. The first, a 2.5-mile section from the Savannah River to U.S. Highway 1, would cost approximately $68 million. Of that, $15 million would go toward building the bridge across the Savannah River. The bridge cost would be shared by the two states.

Right of way acquisition and pre-engineering have already been completed for phase one.

The second phase, from U.S. 1 to Interstate 20 at the Belvedere Exit, would cost about $66 million to complete.

The expressway, officially known as Interstate 520, was conceived in 1970 as a controlled-access loop that would improve traffic flow and economic development across the two-state metro area.

"It's hard to imagine the federal government intended the 520 to end at the banks of the Savannah River," said Aiken County Administrator Bill Shepherd.

THE POLITICS OF FUNDING

Local officials say increased plutonium shipments to and from the Savannah River Site is yet another reason to accelerate funding of Bobby Jones Expressway.

SRS' shift from a tritium production facility to plutonium disposal site means larger amounts of the radioactive material will have to be hauled there by tractor trailer.

And local officials say the best route for those trucks through populated and congested areas is a four-lane, controlled-access road like Bobby Jones.

"If you can divert the plutonium shipments from downtown areas and surface streets, you can minimize the chance for a collision," said Scott MacGregor, director of community development for the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce.

He and a group of other community leaders, called the CSRA Leadership Conference, met with members of the two state's congressional delegation to lobby for additional federal funding.

Mr. MacGregor said congressional leaders made no commitments for the expressway during the trip but said the road's value to SRS would be taken into consideration when evaluating projects for funding.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.