Local sidewalk projects in limbo because of DOT cash crunch

The Dorchester Road sidewalk project apparently won't make the cut under the DOT's new funding formula. Harold and Brandy Rosenbaum said they walk everywhere. 'They only have sidewalks where the schools are. Everywhere else is a dirt path right by the street,' Brandy Rosenbaum said Monday as the couple walked along Dorchester Road between the Charleston Air Force Base and Michaux Parkway.

As the S.C. Department of Transportation grapples with its ongoing cash crunch, one of the more immediate effects might be seen along Dorchester Road.

Sections of that road around the Charleston Air Force Base don't have sidewalks -- and that's not likely to change anytime soon.

Meanwhile, other Lowcountry bike and pedestrian projects from Summerville to Hanahan to West Ashley could be delayed as cities and counties figure if they'll have enough money trickling down.

Over the coming three years, Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties expected to get about $2.5 million in federal money for such projects.

Today, the Charleston Area Transportation Study (CHATS) committee, which divvies up transportation dollars in the tri-county's urban core, approved six local bike and pedestrian projects totalling $4.16 million.

Local governments were set to kick in about $1.66 million, with the $2.5 million balance coming from the federal pot.

But committee members also learned that the state DOT said last week that it will start charging for its administrative costs. The change could drive up a project's cost by 25 percent, said Ron Mitchum, the committee's executive director.

"The timing was terrible," he said. "They've never done that before."

Not only is the state's decision applicable to the new projects, but Mitchum said the DOT also plans to charge a percentage of projects already in the works. He said he plans to meet with DOT soon to get a better handle on the impact.

But the most direct result likely will be the scuttling of a $388,960 project to build new sidewalks along sections of Dorchester Road near the air base. That project ranked the lowest among the six.

The city of North Charleston is still figuring out the impact and has more questions than answers at this point, said acting planning director Bill Gore.

"We definitely would like to see it go forward," he said of the sidewalks. "We think it's a needed project."

Mitchum said the DOT's decision likely would not affect the No. 1 ranked project: a $1.49 million project to rebuild the multi-use path along the Ben Sawyer Boulevard Causeway. Work on that could begin soon.

However, the next four projects -- the Sawmill Branch Canal Trail extension in Summerville; a comprehensive trail in Hanahan; a sidewalk from Daniel Island across St. Thomas Island to Clements Ferry Road; and a multi-use path along the Glenn McConnell Parkway -- might face delays, he said.

Berkeley County Supervisor Dan Davis said the committee might be able to hire a private engineering firm to do DOT's work at a lower price, saving money. The committee voted to pursue that idea.

The squeeze on Lowcountry bike and pedestrian projects is just a small part of the bigger story of how the state DOT has been grappling not only with short-term cash flow woes but also a big gap between its projected income and needs over the next 20 years.

DOT Secretary Robert St. Onge addressed the committee earlier today and explained in detail the 2-1 financial gap between what his agency expects to receive in revenues and what it feels it will need to build needed new roads and to maintain existing ones.

"I've got to set priorities on a very limited set of resources," he said. "I can't get to it all."

Lowcountry pedestrian and bike projects that did not make the CHATS Committee's first cut included new sidewalks along S.C. Highway 171, Savage Road, S.C. Highway 61, Rifle Range Road in Mount Pleasant and Goose Creek's Amy Drive.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.