MOUNT PLEASANT -- Bundled up against the cold, officials gathered Thursday at Memorial Waterfront Park to dig into neat piles of dirt with gold-painted shovels, marking the start of the $83 million widening of Johnnie Dodds Boulevard.

Three miles of the heavily traveled and congested boulevard will be widened from four lanes to six. Charleston County voters approved financing for the road work six years ago.

The project starts in January with trees and debris being cleared between Anna Knapp and Chuck Dawley boulevards to make way for drainage work. Then crews will build ramps to divert traffic during construction of a Johnnie Dodds overpass at Bowman Road.

"This project will benefit all citizens living in Charleston County," County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said.

Roadwork that requires lane closures will be done between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. to minimize traffic disruptions. The project is from just north of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge to the south side of the Interstate 526 interchange.

The boulevard will be expanded from two lanes to three lanes in both directions. Curbs and gutters will be built, and frontage roads will be widened for bike lanes and sidewalks.

The road will be widened by building into the grass median. The project is expected to be finished in late 2012.

The road improvements are needed because the town population has more than doubled to 66,000 in the past 25 years. Near the bridge, the boulevard has 50,000 vehicles daily. It's not unusual for afternoon rush-hour traffic into town to back up onto the bridge.

Mayor Billy Swails said widening Johnnie Dodds is critical to the town's future. Former Mayor Harry Hallman, Swails' predecessor, was instrumental in making the project happen, Swails said.

Hallman, who has Alzheimer's disease, did not attend the groundbreaking but delivered a message through Swails. "The pregnancy is over. It's time to see the baby."

The comment drew laughs from a crowd that included members of Town Council and County Council. State Transportation Secretary Buck Limehouse also attended.

"It's the way government should work but often doesn't," he said of the project.

The Johnnie Dodds project is the biggest in the county RoadWise program. Limehouse predicted that when voters see the results, they will authorize another round of taxes to fund more road improvements.

The section of U.S. 17 where the work will occur is named for former mayor Johnnie Dodds, who died a year ago. The county is managing the project in coordination with the town, the state Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. It includes widening Bowman Road to six lanes from Johnnie Dodds to Shem Creek.

The county issued bonds for the project that will be repaid through transportation sales-tax revenues. The RoadWise program is funded through a half-cent sales tax dedicated to transportation projects.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711