Moving Forward: Something is About to Happen on Highway 41

Sen. Larry Grooms and Councilman Paul Gawrych.
Sen. Larry Grooms and Councilman Paul Gawrych.

Sometime in the year 2021, construction is expected to be completed on all or part of Highway 41 between Highway 17 and the Wando River, alleviating a traffic issue that is almost certain to worsen long before it gets better in the next five years.

Questions remain, however, as to how extensive the work will be, with options ranging from adding two lanes on just a part of the road to building a flyover at the intersection of 41 and 17 and doubling the width of the north-south corridor all the way to the Berkeley County line. Ultimately, the decision will be based on how much money four separate entities – the town of Mount Pleasant, Charleston County, the state of South Carolina and the federal government – choose to invest in making life more pleasant for drivers who use the state highway.

According to Mount Pleasant Councilman Paul Gawrych, a member of the Council’s Transportation Committee, it will cost between $35 million and $40 million to four-lane the 4.6-mile road. Add in the flyover, and the price tag is likely to top the $100-million mark.

At the north end of that stretch of two-lane asphalt, the state and federal government are in the process of replacing the Wando River Bridge, at an estimated cost of $58,573,000. The 55-foot-high structure is expected to be completed in the fall of 2017, taking the place of a bridge built in 1939.

Regardless of the cost and which government entities participate, the town of Mount Pleasant is moving forward with plans to four-lane and add bike lanes and sidewalks on at least the 1.5-mile stretch of Highway 41 that runs from Highway 17 to Joe Rouse Road.

“We’re not going to back off,” Gawrych said. “This is the most challenging infrastructure project in this town. But the good news is that we have two years to build our bank toward paying for this road.”

Two years is the time it will take to design the project, a job that will be handled by the county, in cooperation with the town.

Mount Pleasant Town Administrator Eric DeMoura said that if the town is forced to tackle the road improvement project on its own, it will spend more than $10 million to four-lane the highway from 17 to Joe Rouse Road.

“That won’t fix the entire problem, but only states can take on this kind of project,” DeMoura said. “Cities and towns don’t have that kind of money.”

“It’s not our road, but it’s our citizens,” he added. “But whether the state will participate is the million-dollar question.”

It appears unlikely that the town of Mount Pleasant will have to fly solo. Elliott Summey, chairman of the Charleston County Council, would like to put a referendum on the ballot in November that would establish a half-cent sales takes to raise money for Highway 41 and other projects. Meanwhile, State Sen. Larry Grooms, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee since 2007, is confident that money eventually will flow from Columbia to the Lowcountry to help with traffic issues in North Mount Pleasant.

“The state will participate. We just don’t know at what level,” said Grooms, whose district includes parts of Mount Pleasant, Daniel Island, Goose Creek and Moncks Corner, as well as rural areas.

“The project is moving as quickly as it can right now,” he continued. “The environmental process will determine if the project is a five-lane divided highway or a three-lane divided highway or something else and if there will be a flyover at 17 and 41. These are questions that have to be asked and answered. We must determine the alternatives to get the maximum amount of traffic relief.”

“We’ll use as much state money as we can,” he added.

Grooms pointed out another issue that will be considered: How widening the road, which runs through the African-American Phillips Community, will affect people who have lived along Highway 41 for generations. The area near Horlbeck Creek was founded by freed slaves in the 1870s. Grooms said financial compensation, relocation and building parks and playgrounds all are possibilities.

“If we damage the community, we need to see what we can do to make it whole again,” he commented.

Grooms, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee since 1997, said the best option for Highway 41 includes participation by all four government entities.

“The quickest route to bring the project to completion would need to include federal, state, county and town dollars,” he said. “That would ensure that the job would be done in the quickest amount of time.”

According to Summey, if the half-cent sales tax is on the ballot in November and voters give it the thumbs up, it will bring in $1.5 billion over the next quarter century. He said some of that money would be dedicated to green space and mass transit but that most of it would go for roads in Mount Pleasant, Charleston and North Charleston.

“We have a laundry list of projects we want to fund, but we need to be specific and list the projects we’re going to be completing. If we ask the voters to pass the sales tax, they need to know what they are getting,” Summey commented.

Summey said the sales tax option would be the fairest way to raise money for road work because renters and visitors would help property owners pay for the improvements.

“Thirty-five percent of the money would be generated by tourists,” he added. “We wouldn’t be putting all the burden on ourselves.”

Summey said Highway 41 should have been widened “seven or eight years ago.”

“We can’t point fingers. That gets you nowhere,” he said. “We need to identify the problem and determine how do we get to a solution.”

The town of Mount Pleasant already has put $1.15 million into the project, and the town’s fiscal 2017 budget calls for another $500,000 to be dedicated to the Highway 41 project. Charleston County has contributed $1.2 million, and another $2 million in federal funds will arrive in 2018.

The town will start on interim improvements “that will help some” in about four months, according to Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page. Turn lanes will be added at Joe Rouse Road, at a cost of approximately $750,000.

The 2014 South Carolina Department of Transportation Advanced Project Planning Report predicted that by the year 2035, 22,000 vehicles per day would use Highway 41 between Highway 17 and Joe Rouse Road, while 13,900 vehicles per day would use the road north to the Berkeley County line. Page said Highway 41 would soon reach its capacity with one lane in each direction.

“A two-lane road fails at 19,000,” she said, pointing out that the town will continue to grow along 41. “It’s going to reach its capacity real soon.”

The mayor said it’s important to understand the traffic patterns in Mount Pleasant and to do everything possible to keep motorists moving in the right direction.

“One thing a community needs to do is to study and understand the volume of traffic, when and what we can do for the burden of peak hours,” she pointed out. “There’s lots you can do, like syncing traffic lights. And in some cases, roundabouts are more effective than traffic lights. You also have to understand when large employers such as East Cooper Hospital are letting in and letting out.”

Though it would more than double the price of the Highway 41 project, Page said a flyover at Highways 41 and 17 should be considered, and Gawrych agreed that the Council should take a serious look at that scenario as well.

“My mind is open to all options,” he said. “But I want to make sure our citizens have a say. We started that process last week,” he said, referring to a public meeting held March 23 at the Park West gymnasium.

Page, Gawrych, DeMoura, Summey and Grooms all agreed that the town, county, state and federal government should work together to take care of the necessary improvements on State Highway 41.

“It’s not a solo act. It’s more like an orchestra,” Page concluded.
Timeline for Work on Highway 41

Procurement of design firm January 2016 to May 2016
Federal environmental review and design process Spring 2016 to Spring 2018
Right of way acquisition and final design Spring 2018 to Spring 2019
Construction procurement Summer 2019

 

By Brian Sherman

Photo by John Kurc

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