Making over Johnnie Dodds

MOUNT PLEASANT -- For the next two years, it might seem like the town is trying to corner the market on traffic cones.

A contract for the largest road project in Charleston County's half-cent transportation tax program -- an $84 million remake of Johnnie Dodds Boulevard and its frontage roads -- was approved this past week. And that's just one of four major road-widening road projects planned on U.S. Highway 17 between the Ravenel Bridge and Wando High School.

"It's all going to be going on at pretty much the same time," said Kurt Taylor, Charleston County's deputy administrator responsible for transportation projects. "We are focusing intently on the traffic controls to try to avoid tie-ups."

All of the road work will be done at night, which should help. Work should begin later this year after final design plans are approved.

The county, the town, and the state are each in charge of one segment of the planned highway widening, and are working to coordinate the projects. The town is seeking money for the fourth segment, which would widen Highway 17 from S.C. Highway 41 to Darrell Creek Trail near the high school.

The main goal of each project is to make the highway wide enough to handle the traffic that's resulted from residential construction along Highway 17 north of the Isle of Palms connector. There's so much congestion on parts of the highway, particularly near the Ravenel Bridge, that rush-hour traffic can come to a standstill, even when the lights are green.

The widening work will add a lane in each direction by building onto the median that exists today. The county-run project will include an overpass at Bowman Road, new limits on traffic coming onto Johnnie Dodds at Magrath Darby Boulevard, and a "smart" traffic control system that's supposed to adjust traffic lights based on conditions.

The county's project -- the only one awarded to a contractor so far -- also aims to turn the frontage roads between the Cooper River and Interstate 526 into a more appealing business district with sidewalks, bike lanes and landscaping.

"This is the urban heart of that part of Mount Pleasant, so there will be more amenities than there will be further north," Taylor said.

The price tag amounts to $24 million per mile along the section of the highway known as Johnnie Dodds Boulevard.

Mayor Billy Swails said he has only one regret about the long-awaited project.

"I just wish old Mayor Johnnie Dodds was still alive to see it."

Dodds, a former Mount Pleasant mayor who prepared the town for unprecedented growth, died Dec. 31, 2009. He was 91. Swails was elected mayor in November, succeeding two-term Mayor Harry Hallman.

"This is one thing that got me back involved in local politics," Swails said of the road project. "I'm going to make sure it's beautiful. We are so excited about it."

Reed Banks is excited about it as well. His company, Banks Construction, landed a $55 million contract for the county's Johnnie Dodds road work Tuesday. The North Charleston construction company will partner with United Infrastructure Group for the job.

Banks Construction handled the completed widening of Highway 17 between Hungryneck Boulevard and the Isle of Palms connector, and is working on the county's Palmetto Commerce Parkway project.

"We're excited about being involved and having an opportunity to construct the roadway," Banks said. "Without a doubt, this will provide (job) opportunities for many men and women."

Four-lane Johnnie Dodds Boulevard handles 45,000 cars daily, and projections say it will need to handle 70,000 by 2030. The challenge for the town and the county is to complete a project that speeds traffic along Johnnie Dodds while at the same time making the adjacent frontage roads more pleasant to visit for work and shopping.

"Great streets are vibrant, exciting places where people want to work, shop and vacation. Our challenge is to leverage this public investment to create a great street that offers value to the town," stated a $50,000 report by consultant Thomas & Hutton Engineering Co.

Although Johnnie Dodds Boulevard is widely considered the employment center for Mount Pleasant, it is far from a traditional main street with on-street parking, civic buildings, park space and street trees. Instead, it is frontage roads, shopping centers and a four-lane highway.

When it was built in the 1960s, the boulevard was a way to get from one end of town to the other without having to go through the business district on Coleman Boulevard. As traffic increased, retailers set up shop on "the bypass." It became an architectural hodge-podge of buildings fronted by large parking lots with minimal roadside landscaping.

It was all about cars.

Companies such as Benefitfocus have left the boulevard for Daniel Island, and officials hope the boulevard redevelopment will reverse that trend.

"We've got one chance to do this right and we're going to do it right," Swails said.