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Plan for Gills Creek Greenway moving into final design, but cost and timeline uncertain

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Gills Creek greenway

A sign marks Gills Creek where Rosewood Drive crosses the stream near the campus of Midlands Technical College. Richland County is moving forward with plans to build a greenway along the creek from Fort Jackson Boulevard to the southeastern side of Rosewood, an area hit hard by 2015 floods. Stephen Fastenau/Staff

COLUMBIA — A plan to bring waterfront recreation to a busy area of east Columbia along several miles of Gills Creek is entering the final design phase, Richland County officials said.

The Gills Creek Greenway has been planned for years as an urban biking and walking trail connecting Fort Jackson Boulevard to an area southeast of Rosewood.

Funded by $2 million or more from the Richland County penny tax program — a 1-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2012 to fund various transportation projects — the greenway could help manage storm runoff, improve water quality, offer recreational activities, reduce litter and help control flooding in an area devastated by overflowed creek banks during major flooding that hit Columbia in October 2015, supporters say.

The project previously received resistance from residents of upscale neighborhoods in the area who feel the trail would invite crime to their back doors.

County officials are now working to determine the budget and design of the project, county Transportation Director Michael Niermeier said.

The county now envisions a 12-foot-wide or narrower path starting at Cross Hill Market and snaking south along the creek for about 1 mile to an area south of Rosewood Drive. The initial scope planned to extend the greenway to the Congaree River — a plan Niermeier feels is too ambitious. 

Despite the earlier opposition from what officials call a small but vocal minority, the county has a mandate from penny tax voters to move forward with the work, Niermeier told a county committee charged with oversight of the penny tax program on March 29.

"I look at that as my authority to do something, to move forward with something," he said. "However, we're not here to design something that's going to blow the bank. That's not the point. We will build something that's fiscally responsible, meets all the requirements we need to meet and would be enjoyable by anyone who comes to visit or live here."

Construction would ideally be done all at once to save time and to streamline the required public bidding process, Niermeier said. There's no firm timeline or budget for the work.

The city of Columbia has agreed to maintain and protect the trail. Much of the proposed route is along an existing city utility easement, but the final cost will depend on how much the county has to spend acquiring remaining property or rights-of-way, Niermeier said.

The project initially was allotted $5.3 million for three segments of greenway, though the scope has changed considerably since then as a result of the neighborhood pushback and funding shortages.

Designs from two previous phases — from Fort Jackson to Beecliff Drive and Beecliff to Mikell Lane — are essentially complete. 

Project managers are looking at the design of a next phase from Mikell Lane to Timberlane Drive off of South Beltline. County officials will look at money already spent on the planning and design "to see how far we can go, I guess is the best way to put that," Niermeier told The Post and Courier.

"We don't want to design something we can't construct because there's not enough money," he said.

The $1 billion penny tax program was dogged by a more than $100 million shortfall as construction costs well out-paced project estimates under the program before county leaders scaled back the work.

Additionally, a state audit by the Department of Revenue found that the county had misspent $32 million meant for transportation projects and must repay the money to the transportation fund — a finding Richland County is contesting in court.

The greenway extending to Timberlane Drive could allow it to end where Richland County bought out and demolished homes flooded in 2015. In a survey conducted by the county, many residents favored a trail in the area and natural areas where the homes once stood.

The idea for a trail or natural areas along the creek also is backed by the nonprofit Gills Creek Watershed Association.

“We think that the best way to get people to care about our waterways is to get them connected to it,” organization director Carmony Adler told The Post and Courier in March.

Reach Stephen Fastenau at 803-365-3235. Follow him on Twitter @StephenFastenau.

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