New lanes won’t open for months on trouble-plagued Dorchester Road
SUMMERVILLE — The digger hit something solid, and work stopped again on the beleaguered Dorchester Road widening.
It was a burial vault.
The project’s recent delays have included the unexpected casket find last week, the recent discovery of poor cement in the roadbed underneath the newly paved and crumbling two lanes between Bacons Bridge Road and Sawmill Branch Canal, as well as still-unmoved utility poles in lanes under construction.
And, of course, the relentless spring and summer rain.
As recently as a year ago, officials hoped to remove the sea of orange traffic barrels and open the new road by November. Now they get that glazed look in their eyes when asked.
“Several months,” said Donnie Dukes of Davis & Floyd, the engineers.
For the time being, there no longer is an estimated completion date.
That’s frustrating for already-frowning commuters, residents and business owners.
“I’m getting both ends of it,” said Mike Petty as he finished a coffee outside Charleston Delicatessen and Bakery along a stretch of the road under construction. Petty, who lives in nearby Legend Oaks along Highway 61, has to navigate the horde of traffic from Ashley Ridge High School and Beech Hill Elementary School, the widening construction on Bacons Bridge Road and the Dorchester Road mess just to get that cup, much less wherever he’s going that day.
That means a bumper-to-bumper slalom past orange barrels and pinging heavy-duty equipment around a swarmed intersection of two two-lane roads that together average some 40,000 vehicles or more per day. The traffic counts on both are expected to double in the next 15 years.
The mass and the mess recall the U.S. Highway 17 widening in Mount Pleasant and any number of other projects along increasingly busy Lowcountry roads. Some of these relatively narrow roads were built as quiet country routes well before the population boom of recent years.
And, like many other roads in the Charleston area, they are no longer quiet or country.
“It takes me 30 minutes to go 9 miles at most,” Petty said. “You can’t even get out of Legend Oaks in the morning.”
Rod Ellison, general manager of Tomlinson’s Warehouse, a clothing and furniture retailer on Dorchester Road near Bacons Bridge Road, has seen sales drop about 3.5 percent. He counts himself lucky.
“We have a loyal following,” he said. He had hoped to make it up with big Christmas and holiday-season sales when the widened road opened in November. Now that’s not going to happen.
“Folks are just not going to come to this side of town with that traffic backed up here to Ashley Phosphate Road (five miles away),” he said.
The speed limit has been dropped from 45 mph to 35 mph for the project, but it hasn’t made a lot of difference. Residents in the subdivisions along the 5-mile stretch of the Dorchester Road project — roughly between Trolley Road and U.S. Highway 17A — have to deal with commuter drivers who speed up to close gaps and keep them from pulling in or out.
People who live in Highwoods Plantation find themselves backed up to a construction equipment lot and wake to noise late at night as crews work to finish lane-closure jobs before the morning rush.
Dorchester County School District 2 principals regularly phone the administration office to notify it about late-arriving buses, even though the district has buses doubling up and tripling up for runs.
Linda Huffman, the assistant superintendent for administration personnel, has to take those calls. She too has to make that Dorchester Road drive.
“It is frustrating,” she said. “Traffic is just unbelievable. There’s just not enough buses to do double and triple runs.”
Of the recent delays, the most aggravating is the roadbed trouble. The casket find couldn’t be helped. A wall crew was digging in the road right-of-way near Salters Cemetery, a small community graveyard back in the trees without a marked boundary. Now the crew must wait until next-of-kin can be found and notified and the casket moved. But that won’t have much impact on the overall project.
The roadbed problem is a different matter. It was discovered in late August as Davis & Floyd and the S.C. Department of Transportation searched for the cause of an inexplicable crumbling of the new road surface.
The bumps and potholes have led to a lot of questions from disgruntled constituents along the road, Dorchester County Councilman Jay Byars said.
The bed is gravel infused with cement to harden it, a strict percentage required by the contract. The bed didn’t have enough cement in it.
The contractor, L&L Contractors, will eat the cost of replacing it, so the overall $22.5 million project price tag doesn’t change.
But the fix has to wait until the rework of the old road lanes is finished, so traffic can be moved over there. The plan to fix the new lanes must be approved, the existing asphalt pulverized and cement added to the bed before final paving can begin.
More rain would delay the project even more. Not only is every rain day lost, Dukes said, but the following day has to be spent doing erosion damage control.
“You’re always dealing with some issues in construction projects,” he said. “The key thing is figuring them out and moving ahead.”
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