The S.C. Department of Transportation is seeking nearly $9 million in federal money to raise the roadbed of U.S. 501 near the Waccamaw River.
DOT officials began discussing the idea last year after Hurricane Florence’s flood threatened to cut off highway access to the Grand Strand. During the flood, parts of S.C. 22, S.C. 9 and S.C. 905 were underwater. DOT crews worked with the National Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a temporary dam to keep U.S. 501 open. In May, the DOT submitted a grant application for elevating that road.
“We thought it was the most critical lifeline,” said Leland Colvin, the DOT’s deputy secretary for engineering. He noted the application was the only one the DOT made for this type of grant (related to Hurricane Florence).
DOT officials said a decision about funding the $11.6 million project will likely be made early next year. If approved, 75 percent of the project would be covered by the federal government and the remaining cost would be paid by the DOT.
Most of the grant — about $9.6 million — would pay for the construction. The plan is to raise the road bed two feet, Colvin said.
About $2 million would pay for studies that would look at not only the benefits of raising the road but also placing culverts beneath it to prevent water from being dammed on the downtown side of the highway.
The flow of the floodwater was an issue during Florence last year. At one point, Conway City Council considered filing an injunction to prevent the DOT from building the temporary dam. They feared the barrier would cause more homes to flood on the downtown side. They said the road’s design already exacerbates the city’s flooding challenges because it holds water on the north side of the highway.
Conway’s concerns about 501 remain. City officials said they did not know about the DOT grant application until contacted by myhorrynews.com. They were pleased to learn culverts are part of the discussion, but they don’t support elevating the road without them.
“The city of Conway has been plagued by many issues, storms, [and] challenges, but we’ve been blessed by so many graces and individuals who call us home,” city councilman William Goldfinch said via text. “We’ll continue to prosper and persevere, however we need our state Partners by our side. Let us seek solutions that will reduce future flooding; let us not encourage practices like raising established highways that serve as dams just so that we can continue to usher folks to the beach.”
Some Horry County Council members also said they didn’t know about the DOT's grant request until they received media calls.
Councilman Johnny Vaught said he remembers a discussion about raising the road coming up last year, but he didn’t realize the DOT had decided to pursue federal funding for that project.
Like city officials, Vaught supports carving openings beneath the existing road to hasten the flow of flood water. But in recent weeks, he’s championed a different infrastructure proposal, the Lake Busbee Bypass, which would link U.S. 701 South with S.C. 544 via a new road and bridge project. Busbee Bypass supporters maintain a new bridge would relieve traffic congestion in Conway and speed up evacuation if a hurricane comes. The Conway Chamber of Commerce launched a petition campaign for the road this week.
Vaught said simply raising 501 would not solve some of the other traffic issues in the Conway area.
“It would not change anything except it would make it harder for us to lose 501,” he said. “That’s all. It would not impact the traffic flow from Conway.”
Although other parts of the state saw damage from Florence, DOT officials said the Grand Strand proved particularly vulnerable. Their fear is the area east of the Waccamaw could become an island if another drenching storm arrives.
“When we started looking at the part of the state that has the potential to be cut off, you’re looking at … Myrtle Beach,” Colvin said. “That’s an important section to the state.”