SUMMERVILLE — Tuesday will mark 15 years to the day since Dorchester County approved a 1-cent sales tax that gave the county the funds it needed to build the 2½-mile third leg of the Berlin G. Myers Parkway.
But for S.C. Department of Transportation Commissioner Robby Robbins and thousands of Summerville residents, it won't be a happy anniversary.
Since the funds were approved on Election Day 2004, the town, Dorchester County and the Army Corps of Engineers have been embroiled in bureaucratic gridlock and infighting that has prevented the parkway from being completed.
Its completion, locals largely agree, would solve the traffic problems plaguing the fast-growing city.
"Right now with the improvements we’ve made to North Main Street and the introduction of the new Nexton Parkway, if we can get this thing completed, you can go all the way from Highway 61 to I-26 without ever going through Summerville," Robbins said. "That would be a tremendous asset to traffic (problems)."
But finishing the project remains years away. A public hearing on the DOT construction plan is tentatively scheduled for "early 2020," according to the project website. And at its earliest, construction won't be complete until January 2024.
Based on precedent, Robbins didn't sound overly hopeful even that timeline would come to fruition.
15 years in the making
Since the sales tax increase passed in 2004 and the money first became available in 2005, Summerville has been in a battle to get the necessary permits to even begin construction on the final stretch of the parkway — the first phase of which was completed in 1990 and the second in 1995.
The Army Corps contends this is because there is a federal flood mitigation project — the Sawmill Branch canal — that would be impacted by the parkway's construction. Since the canal exists, the federal government is forced to look at the process through a more complicated lens.
Brian Williams, the Charleston District chief of the Corps Programs & Project Management Branch, said Section 408 of the U.S. code allows for modifications to federal flooding protection projects, like the Sawmill Branch, but only if the changes don’t negatively affect the benefit of federal project.
Numerous design proposals the Corps received from the town government, Dorchester County and DOT didn't meet their standards, which forced the design and planning process to start again from square one — often a yearslong process.
"Our job here with the Corps of Engineers is to make sure that the benefits for the project — which are reducing risk of flooding — are kept intact," Williams said.
Each change that the Corps required Dorchester County and DOT to make, Williams said, set off a complex "numerical modeling" process to make sure everything was up to federally mandated standards.
"It’s a really complex issue. Every time there’s a design change, that perpetuates through another review cycle," he said. "It just takes a fairly long time."
When asked if it was normal for a project like the Berlin G. Myers Parkway extension to take well over a decade to make its way through the permitting process, Williams demurred.
"Is this normal? Probably not," he said. "But I don’t know if this is a normal proposal."
A political battle
From 2004 to 2014, Robbins served on the Dorchester County Sales Tax Transportation Authority board, which originated when the sales tax passed that November. He "lived with the project" as a member of the board, he said.
But after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005 — during which the Army Corps of Engineers was widely criticized for its construction of the levee system that failed the state — the Corps started enforcing the stringent standards (Code 408) to protect flood barriers.
"We were pretty sure at the time we were the only jurisdiction in the United States where they were exercising that authority," Robbins said. "Now for the last 10 years, we have been mired in this process and we can’t seem to do anything that satisfies them."
Interested parties have hired different consultants and engineering firms with knowledge of meeting Code 408 requirements in the hopes of expediting the permitting process with the Corps, but to no avail, Robbins said.
"During the first three years of 408 implementation, we fought them tooth and nail on what they were requesting, but they wouldn’t budge ... to my knowledge, they have (now) modeled this in a way that should be satisfactory to the Corps," Robbins said. "Yet we still don’t have a permit."
Frustrations in Summerville have hit such a point that when U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham returned to his home state in August, members of the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce lobbied the powerful senator to intervene and help expedite the project — and Graham promised to do so.
Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, said Wednesday the senator has followed through on that promise, but did not go into detail.
"We have been in touch and continue to speak with the relevant stakeholders, including the US Army Corps and SC Department of Transportation, about the project," Bishop said in an emailed statement.
Finishing the parkway has also become a point of local contention as the town prepares to elect a new mayor. Robbins, however, cautioned against placing blame for the project's continued delays on any one individual, saying the problem was much more widespread.
"It doesn't have anything to do with one individual, I can tell you that," he said. "The need is there and the want is there, it’s trying to get the Corps satisfied. It’s been agonizing going through this. We desperately need it. And we need it now."