Originally created 04/01/04

Parkway funds may fall short



AIKEN - The Palmetto Parkway will get only $2 million of the money earmarked in a transportation authorization bill now awaiting approval by the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett said.

This amount is far short of what local politicians want and not enough to lessen the likelihood of a three-year delay in completion of the project's $100 million second phase, local officials said.

Still, they were quick to praise Mr. Barrett for getting the project listed.

"It's a major achievement just to get it on the list," said Skip Grkovic, the director of economic and community development for North Augusta.

The first phase of the four-lane road, which is an extension of the Bobby Jones Expressway into South Carolina, is expected to be open to traffic around June 18, said project engineer Alan Wertz, of the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

Mr. Barrett, R-S.C., said the project won't be given enough federal money to make up for the dearth of state money available to finish the $100 million link with Interstate 20 near North Augusta.

And there's no guarantee the amount earmarked for the Palmetto Parkway will survive the legislative wrangling to come, Mr. Barrett said.

Money for the project was folded into the six-year, $275 billion transportation authorization bill that still faces an expected vote today.

A similar measure has to wend its way through the Senate, and the resulting legislation faces a potential veto from President Bush, who finds its spending level excessive.

The bill also faces opposition from one of Mr. Barrett's South Carolina colleagues, U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint, a fellow Republican who is running for U.S. Senate.

Mr. DeMint, a visible supporter of the Palmetto Parkway last summer, opposes the transportation authorization bill because it is too expensive and relies on a new formula that deprives South Carolina of an estimated $276 million in federal highway money, said Susan Beals, his top transportation aide.

Fighting for fair funding trumps individual projects, she said.

"A $2 million earmark is less important than the $276 million South Carolina is cheated out of because of an unfair funding formula," Ms. Beals said.

Last year, Mr. Barrett and other area politicians were able to win $4 million in federal money for the project, considered vital for the economic growth of western Aiken County. This was the first infusion of federal cash for a project that has been paid for with state and local tax dollars.

The project needs $49 million in federal money so construction can continue on the second phase until state infrastructure bank money again becomes available.

"The good thing is we were able to sort of set a precedent by getting some money last year, but we're far from being ahead of the power curve," said Mr. Barrett, who said the highway is his top legislative priority.

If the Palmetto Parkway garners a full $49 million slug of federal money and money quickly becomes available from the state infrastructure bank, construction on the $100 million second phase could begin in 2005 and be completed by 2008, Mr. Grkovic said.

Funding delays would result in a worst case scenario - a 2011 linkup of the Palmetto Parkway with Interstate 20, Mr. Grkovic said.

After the first phase is complete, there will be only about $14 million in construction money left.

"If some of those sources don't come through, it won't kill the project, but it will slow it down some," he said.

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395

or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.