As they struggle to catch up with residential growth that has led to daily traffic snarls in a once-rural part of the county, Berkeley County officials are also trying to get ahead of future growth.
But doing so might mean borrowing $37 million to fast-track two widening projects: Nexton Parkway and part of U.S. Highway 176. The projects are expected to cost $52 million total, with some of the money coming from the county's 1 cent sales tax collections.
“We are all greatly concerned with traffic congestion from the boom in construction activity in the 176-Cane Bay area,” said Deputy Supervisor Les Blankenship.
The interchange at Mile Marker 197 on Interstate 26 and Nexton Parkway are set to open in a couple weeks, easing traffic backups at the entrances to Nexton, Carnes Crossroads and Cane Bay.
But with thousands more houses expected in coming years, it won’t solve the problem for long.
The county is considering borrowing $12 million from Nexton Developer American Newland Communities to widen to four lanes a 5-mile stretch of the parkway from Nexton Elementary School to U.S. 176.
Berkeley is obligated to widen the parkway when a traffic study says it’s needed, according to its development agreement with Nexton. Because the project was not listed as a project in the county's 2014 sales tax referendum, those funds can’t be used to pay for it.
“We believe the lanes are going to be warranted almost immediately, so we’d like to get a head start on the construction on this,” Blankenship said.
Construction could be completed by the end of next year, he said.
Widening Highway 176 from Nexton Parkway to Highway 17A, where turn lanes would also be added, could be funded by $25 million in special source revenue bonds, shaving about five years off the project’s timeline, officials said.
Preliminary costs for widening Highway 176 from 17A to Volvo Cars Drive is included in the county’s 1 cent sales tax projects, but not the construction, which is planned in two phases. This plan splits phase one into two sections, with the second part including widening from Nexton Parkway to Jedburg Road.
“If we don’t get started pretty soon, it’s going to be two to three years before we can get started (with sales tax money),” Blankenship said. “Those folks need help right now.”
Deputy Supervisor Tim Callanan suggested issuing the bonds and paying them off with part of the county’s annual $2.4 million portion of economic development fees from multi-use industrial parks.
In addition, the county's 1 cent sales tax collections are expected to bring in $27 million more than originally thought, which will also go toward the project.
"My concern is the county going into more debt," said Councilman Jack Schurlknight, who represents the area. "But this is a very, very important issue to our district. It goes a lot further than inconvenience. It goes to safety and well-being."
Councilman Kevin Cox said he is worried that moving the projects ahead could mean other projects won’t get funded.
“If we push more projects on the books without knowing whether we have the funds for them, somebody might get left out in the end who is already approved," he said. "I don’t think that’s fair or right.”
Councilman Steve Davis said the county "helped create this monster," but projecting cost estimates could lead to problems.
"I call that voodoo economics," he said.
The proposal is expected to go before council for initial reading at its April 23 meeting.