MOUNT PLEASANT -- Although it is causing a hardship for the town's water and sewer utility, Mayor Billy Swails on Monday defended plans for $175 million in U.S. Highway 17 improvements in the next three years as essential to the town's economic future.

Waterworks commissioners are considering charging up to $3.75 per customer for 36 months to pay the estimated $5 million needed to move its water and sewer lines out of the right of way for the road projects. Waterworks said it has to raise the money for the work by charging its customers higher fees.

"I know you are in a dilemma for this money. They need to get the utilities out of the way so they can get to work. I know the 66,000 people in Mount Pleasant will appreciate it," Swails said.

As mayor, Swails is a member of the Waterworks Commission, which met Monday night to discuss the situation. "I'm not going to apologize for accelerating everything and causing some problems. Our citizens really want to see this. It's just going to be biting the bullet for three years," he said.

Beginning at the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, the town is widening 10 miles of U.S. 17 from four lanes to six lanes to relieve traffic congestion. It also will improve frontage roads and intersections. The work begins this summer.

Commission Chairman William Golightly said he was concerned that the up to 7.8 percent rate hike necessary to pay to move the utility lines would not be rescinded after three years. "Have you ever seen any temporary tax that actually went away? I don't know if the typical person is going to back us," Golightly said.

In addition, Waterworks is weighing a 4.25 percent rate increase that would be implemented in January.

A number of alternatives were discussed by Waterworks commissioners, such as delaying improvements to its Center Street plant or drawing funds for the line relocation from impact fees. Waterworks voted to hold a public hearing June 7 to receive feedback on the possibility of paying for the line relocation with higher rates.

Waterworks General Manager Clay Duffie said it's tough to determine exactly what relocating the lines will cost because the utility has yet to see detailed road project plans. Golightly cited the combined effect of the pace of the road program and the down economy. "We're being hit with all this at once," he said.

At the beginning of the year, the utility raised basic water and sewer rates 9 percent, which added $4 to the bill of a typical residential customer.

Golightly said the 36-month special assessment for water and sewer line relocation could range from $2.50 to $3.75 per customer per month. Although it is not being called a rate increase, that's how customers will view it, he said.

As an alternative, Golightly suggested the possiblity of a 6 percent rate hike in January instead of 4.25 percent. "I just want to see if it's an option," he said. Tax revenues that will pay for the road work can not be used to relocate water and sewer lines, officials said.

Waterworks is already facing a "perfect storm" of near zero growth, empty homes lost to foreclosure and reduced demand for irrigation because of excessive rain, Golightly said.

In recent years, Waterworks has absorbed an estimated $5 million in water and sewer line relocation costs because of road work. This situation is different because of the scope of the project and the accelerated schedule, Duffie said.

Rush-hour traffic on U.S. 17 near the Ravenel Bridge often moves at a crawl. At other times of the day, the highway remains congested. Commuters fill the road because many residents live in the northern part of town in giant developments such as Park West.

Some 45,000 motorists travel U.S. 17 daily. Daily traffic is expected to grow to 70,000 by 2030. Swails said the U.S. 17 projects will meet the town's needs for the next 20 years.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711 or pfindlay@postandcourier.com.