Paradise meets pavement on U.S. Highway 17 through the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto river basins. Wetlands and Spanish-moss-draped trees as far as the eye can see have earned the area a reputation as one of the most beautiful places around.
Over the years, the 22-mile-long road through the wilderness in Colleton and Beaufort counties also has earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous highways in the nation.
In response to growing concern about fatalities on that stretch on the road, state and local officials launched a campaign to widen the road and build other safety improvements.
The fruit of their labor can be seen in the $170 million ACE Basin Parkway, from Gardens Corner to Jacksonboro, that was completed this month. For the first time, travelers can drive a four-lane highway from Interstate 95 at exit 33 near Yemassee all the way to Charleston. And area truckers now have a new four-lane highway connecting Charleston to I-95 and points south into Georgia and Florida.
“It’s a whole lot safer. You’re not white-knuckle driving like you used to,” said Keith Johnson, president of the Charleston Motor Carriers Association.
Johnson said the improvements were a long time coming.
“It was due about 25 years ago,” he said.
The old road had two lanes and periodic passing lanes. It was featured in 2005 on an NBC “Dateline Special: America’s Most Dangerous Roads.” At that time, the road had a death rate more than double other sections of the highway in the state.
In the past decade, more than 33 people have died in at least 1,000 crashes on the road between Gardens Corner and Jacksonboro. Fatalities have happened at a rate 77 percent higher than on the South Carolina interstate system, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Things seemed to reach a tipping point with the treacherous stretch of highway in 2004 when a Navy bus crash near Gardens Corner killed three sailors and injured dozens stationed aboard the destroyer Pinckney, which was docked in Charleston. They were going to Beaufort National Cemetery to lay a wreath on the grave of the ship’s namesake, William Pinckney.
The next year, Beaufort and Colleton county leaders, the DOT and the Lowcountry Council of Governments applied to the State Infrastructure Bank for funding of a project to alleviate “the continuous carnage on this stretch of highway.”
Environmentalists fought against an initial plan for the parkway to have five lanes, because they said it would allow roadside growth in a pristine natural setting. A design was settled on that included a roadside buffer to prevent development and a landscaped median separating the two northbound and two southbound lanes.
The resulting safety improvements for the new ACE Basin Parkway include a new Harriet Tubman Bridge over the Combahee River, a newly-designed Gardens Corner intersection with U.S. Highway 21, guardrails and road shoulders.
Completion of the parkway widening means that nearly all of the 211 miles of U.S. 17 in South Carolina have been upgraded to a multi-lane highway.