MOUNT PLEASANT -- The town's massive $183 million road-building campaign opened Monday with a ceremonial groundbreaking for the six-lane widening of another stretch of traffic-plagued U.S. Highway 17.
Above a din of cars and trucks whizzing past, town, county and state officials spoke their praises of the $42 million effort that will transform the highway from the Isle of Palms Connector to Darrell Creek Trail, a 5.5-mile stretch of heavily congested U.S. 17, the town's main transportation artery.
"This is a great day for Mount Pleasant," said Ken Willingham, a town resident and state highway commissioner. Others, including Mayor Billy Swails, Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor and state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, also spoke from a portable stage erected outside the old Laing Middle School next to the highway.
Willingham's upbeat assessment was the general mood among those in attendance, including sweetgrass basket makers who line the busy thoroughfare where more than 50,000 cars and trucks travel daily.
"Right now, everybody is good about it. They are keeping us knowledgeable about what is going on," basket maker Barbara Manigault said.
A $57 million project for Interstate 526 to run an overpass above U.S. 17 to connect with Hungryneck Boulevard also was part of the groundbreaking Monday. It is funded by the State Infrastructure Bank.
North Charleston's Gulf Stream Construction Co. is the prime contractor for the IOP Connector to Darrell Creek Trail six-laning and the I-526 overpass of U.S. 17 connecting to Hungryneck Boulevard.
The widening of U.S. 17 from the Ravenel Bridge to I-526 is an $84 million Charleston County Roadwise project funded with a half-cent transportation sales tax endorsed in a referendum.
All of the ongoing U.S. 17 road construction is planned for completion in the spring of 2013.
The heaviest construction activity is happening now at U.S. 17 and Bowman Road, where there is a cluster of orange barrels and cones, dug-up roadsides and heavy equipment. When finished, U.S. 17 will overpass Bowman Road rather than intersect with it.
The Garden of Prayer Pentecostal Church faces the prospect of losing some of its property to the project, but Rev. Lewis Jefferson had no complaints. He recalled walking dirt frontage roads on U.S. 17 as a boy.
"We welcome the growth and everything. At the end of the day, it will be good for us," he said.
Jefferson said he hopes that a secondary transportation network can be built that will allow residents of rural communities along the busy highway to travel back and forth without having to get on the six-lane road.
After a press conference where the officials spoke, Mayor Pro-Tem Paul Gawrych showed off a photo of U.S. 17 when it was a dirt road in 1915. Historically, it was known as the King's Highway.
"We're looking forward to making King's Highway even bigger," he said.
The $42 million project from the IOP Connector to Darrell Creek Trail is funded by the town, the S.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. Six-laning and other improvements to U.S. 17 between I-526 and IOP Connector already have been completed.
Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711