By Kristine Hartvigsen
Greenwood County’s transportation infrastructure is solid for now, but there is a clear need for major improvements in the near future, partly due to continued robust economic development in the area. Of course, growth and new industries bring both blessings and challenges.
The good news is that Greenwood is a significant employer of citizens both within the county and many who commute in during the week. In fact, according to the Greenwood City/County Comprehensive Plan 2035, the population of the city of Greenwood increases some 29.5 percent during the week due to this influx of workers from other counties. The population of the county overall, about 70,000 people, also increases by 2.6 percent during the work week. The bad news is that—combined with hundreds of heavy trucks transporting goods and supplies from area manufacturers—anticipated heavier traffic creates a formula for greater traffic congestion and deteriorating roads.
“One of our higher-priority projects is the Highway 246 industrial corridor,” said Steve Brown, District 5 representative and chairman of Greenwood County Council. “We went to voters for tax money to make major improvements on that highway. Since then (last year), we’ve located one additional industry out there, Enviva, which manufactures wood pellets.”
In addition, Teijin, a Japanese chemical and information technology company, is building a manufacturing facility along this route, bringing 220 more jobs to the county — and the commuting workers to fill them. S.C. 246 is a 28-mile, two-lane, rural highway linking communities along eastern Greenwood County. Large employers Fuji and Ascend also are located along that corridor.
Funding continues to be the biggest impediment to widening and improving Highway 246. “So many of our roads are state roads and are in poor shape,” Greenwood Mayor Welborn Adams said. “We just don’t have the funds.”
“Highway 246 is part of my county council district,” Brown said. “I am down that road a good bit. My subdivision intersects with that highway, and I know how difficult it is to get in and out at certain times of the day. We don’t have enough money in the capital sales tax to do all the projects. I’m hoping S.C. Department of Transportation (SCDOT) will partner with us on this.”
Already, SCDOT partners with each of the 46 counties via the C Fund program to fund improvement to state roads. From this fund, counties receive modest apportionments averaging about $1 million a year.
Julie Barker, Upstate Regional Production Engineer for SCDOT, said that Greenwood County received $12 million from its sales tax referendum. The estimated cost for a major widening project such as for S.C. 246 would be in the neighborhood of $50 million. That’s a substantial gap.
“With $12 million, the county could start some preliminary design work,” Barker said. “Our suggestion was to start basic conceptual design on this project so that, when there are funds available, they have something ready to go.”
Barker explained that, to address local funding gaps, counties should turn to their regional councils of government. In this case, that would be the Upper Savannah Council of Governments (USCOG), which already has committed its funds to a number of approved projects for years to come, most profoundly the widening of U.S. Highway 25 in Edgefield. Another option usually is the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, but it has temporarily stopped taking applications.
Last year, the General Assembly approved a total 12-cent increase in the gas tax — 2 cents a year for six years — which became effective in January. The anticipated $149 million generated from that increase is directed to help pay for needed highway repairs and other infrastructure improvements in the state.
“Most of the money from the new gas tax is going toward deferred maintenance and interstate repaving and maintenance,” said Rick Green, government services director for the USCOG, which recently hosted a meeting of regional transportation leaders. “There is no money in the program for local projects until 2023.”
The USCOG transportation group will meet again in the fall to continue their infrastructure dialogue.
The condition of the county’s bridges is also a concern. TRIP, a national transportation research group, estimates that 10 percent of South Carolina’s locally and state-maintained bridges are structurally deficient. Currently, only two bridge projects have been budgeted for repair: S-24-101 at Wilson Creek and S.C. 34 at Wilson Creek. Those most in need of repair or replacement include: U.S. 178 over CSX Railroad, U.S. 221 over Hard Labor Creek, and Highway 221 over CSX Railroad.
The need for road repair and improvement is only expected to increase with companies such as Lonza expanding, the continued arrival of new employers, and their attendant impact on the local population. If the growth trend continues, Greenwood County’s population is projected to reach 79,750 by 2030. Clearly, there will be more personal vehicles as well as big trucks on the roads.
There are more than 1,262 miles of roadway infrastructure in Greenwood County. Traffic counts have indicated that parts of U.S. 25 are the most heavily traveled in the county. Segments of S.C. 72 and 225 and U.S. 221 also have high traffic counts.
The SC Department of Transportation prioritizes new road projects based first on financial viability and second on public safety, followed by economic development potential, traffic volume, truck traffic, and other criteria. In its most recent Long Range Transportation Plan, the USCOG recommended several priority road improvement projects, including widening S.C. 246, widening S.C. 34 from Greenwood to Ninety Six, and constructing the proposed Carolina Avenue Connector from Greenwood’s Edgefield/South Main Street to the Greenwood Genetic Center Research Park.
Communities across the country consider the possibility of installing toll booths to generate money for road maintenance. Other ideas include assessing impact fees on new businesses that contribute significantly to the congestion. The logic is that only users of the specific roadway pay for it.
“There is a lot of traffic on Highway 25 to and from Greenville,” Adams said. “To me, that is a possible place you could put a toll, but they are really unpopular with people. …. Still, it’s not something I would be opposed to. We need to be more creative to fund these things, and it’s so expensive.”