When the black water of the Waccamaw River gushed over its banks and spilled into Horry County homes and businesses last year, the eyes of local and state officials immediately turned to the bridge over U.S. 501 Bypass.
Fearing Hurricane Florence’s floodwater would cut off access to the coast, the S.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) built an emergency dam to keep the road open. Constructing the project led to 501 being temporarily closed, which snarled traffic and left Conway in gridlock.
“Our community’s very vulnerable,” said Jimmy Jordan, a Realtor who has spent the last year searching for ways to improve traffic in the Conway area. “We’ve had a rough couple of years with these floods. … And it’s not going away.”
In the wake of Florence — and long before Hurricane Dorian was on anyone’s radar — DOT officials discussed a host of possible solutions for 501, including elevating the roadbed and making the bridge six lanes. But Jordan developed a new proposal: the Lake Busbee Bypass, a project named after the former man-made lake that for decades was a cooling pond for the Grainger power plant near the bridge.
The bypass would be an extension of the Conway Perimeter Road that would connect U.S. 701 South with S.C. 544 via a new road and bridge over the Waccamaw River. It would cover about four miles and provide an alternative to 501 that would bring traffic just past Coastal Carolina University.
Supporters see the project as a way to improve evacuation infrastructure, relieve 501 congestion and maintain a key access point to the beach in case of a flood.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy said. “It’s going to protect us from isolation. … It’s just something that we’ve got to have.”
Jordan has developed that concept over months of discussions with engineers, Santee Cooper officials, state lawmakers, and county and city leaders. Last week, he met with a panel of government and business leaders at the Conway Chamber of Commerce to discuss the idea and review early maps prepared by county government.
“I feel like a prisoner sometimes in my own town,” he told the group. “You can’t get around and you just can’t go where you want.”
Building a bridge is not a simple process. There are numerous environmental studies and permits required, not to mention the cost of the road. And DOT, the agency responsible for maintaining the state’s bridges, already struggles to keep up with its existing bridge network.
Still, the committee that met Thursday seemed supportive of the project. That group included leaders from Coastal Carolina University, Conway Medical Center, HTC, Grand Strand Water & Sewer Authority and the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge.
Some Conway and Horry County officials were also there, and state representatives Jeff Johnson, R-Conway, and Kevin Hardee, R-Loris, also favored the idea.
“When we had this last flood, the issue was, ‘Is Myrtle Beach going to be cut off,’” Johnson said. “There’s no doubt that was the question.”
County councilman Johnny Vaught agreed.
“We were afraid that this whole area over here was going to be an island,” he said. “We were worried about if we lost the bridge at Galivants Ferry, which we were about this close to losing, and 378 got closed off, we were pre-staging food and helicopters to be able to feed this part of the county. … That’s how close we came to a terrible situation.”
Florence flooded sections of major arteries, including S.C. 9 and S.C. 22. With few options for getting over the Waccamaw, transportation became a major problem for local institutions.
Conway Medical Center housed 375 of its employees there. Coastal Carolina couldn’t hold classes.
“That’s pretty much why we were shut down,” Coastal President David DeCenzo said. “My employees couldn’t get there.”
Apart from the disaster concerns, committee members said the Busbee Bypass would make daily life easier for commuters by improving traffic flow in the area.
“When the flood happened, we were all just hanging on by a thread,” HTC CEO Mike Hagg said. “We all realize that. I think it’s more of a day in, day out issue.”
As with any major infrastructure project, the main question involves money.
There is no price tag yet for the bypass or even an identified funding source, although the committee mentioned some possibilities.
“It’s probably going to end up being a RIDE [IV] project,” said Hardee, the state lawmaker, referring to the local sales tax for infrastructure projects. “There’s not a pot of money up there [in Columbia] that we can go get to build this road.”
The county is working on projects from RIDE II and RIDE III now. RIDE IV would have to be approved by the voters and would likely be at least a decade away.
Some officials, however, see another possibility.
The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank provides loans for major road and bridge projects.
Through most of 2019, county officials have sparred with the leaders of Grand Strand municipalities over the 1.5 percent hospitality fee that the county has historically collected on all hotel stays, restaurant meals and admission tickets. Myrtle Beach leaders sued the county over the fee in March, and the latest court rulings have prevented the county from collecting that fee inside municipal borders.
County officials had hoped to use the hospitality fees to pay for a DOT contract to build I-73, a proposed interstate would link the Grand Strand with I-95. But last week, county council voted to cancel the I-73 contract in 90 days unless city officials agreed to help fund the road. If the cities refuse, the county would still be collecting more than $20 million each year in the unincorporated areas.
Vaught said some of that money could pay off a loan from the infrastructure bank for the Busbee Bypass. The councilman added that he doesn’t want the county to spend all its hospitality fee revenues on I-73, so the DOT contract will be canceled if an agreement can’t be reached with the cities.
“I’m not willing to commit all of our money to do that against the will of the people of the county,” he said. “The people of the county need something like this [bridge] a lot more than they need I-73 right now.”
With many road projects, land acquisition is often expensive. Busbee Bypass supporters believe the project’s cost will be lower because much of the route sits on public land.
On the Conway side of the river, the property owner is Santee Cooper. That tract includes a ridge behind the Lake Busbee site. Jordan has been in talks with Santee Cooper officials about the property and is trying to persuade the utility to commit the land for the project quickly. If the state utility is sold — which has been discussed in recent months — that would impact the bypass idea.
“You can forget it,” Jordan said. “I think that’s one of the reasons that Santee Cooper ought to be kept. Because when it’s gone, it’s gone. As long as Santee Cooper’s there, you’ve got some control over what goes on.”
In March, then-interim Santee Cooper CEO James Brogdon sent a letter to board member David Singleton about the interest in using the land for the bridge. Singleton had been contacted by Jordan about the proposal.
“We will be glad to cooperate as these citizens continue to study the feasibility of such a project,” Brogdon wrote.
He noted that the utility typically uses a sealed bid process for land sales, but Santee Cooper has made exceptions for projects involving a purchaser who would “’use the property for a public good as is the case in this instance.”
On the other side of the river, some of the land is owned by Grand Strand Water & Sewer Authority and the wildlife refuge, but both authority president Fred Richardson and refuge manager Craig Sasser said the bypass project should be feasible.
For years, Sasser has supported connecting Coastal Carolina and the refuge with Conway through a series of trails and bike paths. The challenge has been getting across the river.
Sasser said the proposed path of the road and bridge shouldn’t cause major problems for the refuge and adding bike paths to the bridge could provide the connectivity he’s long sought.
“That particular route would probably be the easiest route to try to get through the refuge,” he said during last week’s meeting.
Jordan said it’s important that environmental advocates like Sasser support the project. Recent infrastructure construction, such as the extension of International Drive, faced court challenges from conservation groups.
Representatives from the Waccamaw Riverkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League said they would need to see the exact route of the Busbee Bypass before deciding whether it’s appropriate, but they did agree with Sasser about the importance of establishing a trail link. They also said it’s better to use the utility’s existing right-of-ways on that property.
“I’ve talked with Craig [Sasser] about this before,” Riverkeeper Cara Schildtknecht said. “If they can utilize the same right-of-way so that you’re not having multiple right-of-ways through wetlands or through a forested habitat, that’s always better.”
For the bridge’s proponents, two key selling points are that the project could be built without disrupting 501 traffic and it would also affect fewer wetland sites than the Southern Evacuation Lifeline (SELL), a proposed road that would connect the South Strand with U.S. 701 by building a bridge across the river.
RIDE III includes $25 million for environmental studies and right-of-way acquisition for SELL, but even that road’s supporters acknowledge the project would cost hundreds of millions and likely face opposition from conservationists.
Erin Pate, north coast director for the Coastal Conservation League, called the Busbee Bypass idea “intriguing.”
“We would just want to make sure that if the project moves forward it has the least amount of impact on the environment as possible,” she said. “I’m not immediately alarmed as I might would be if we were talking about SELL.”
Busbee Bypass proponents maintain another Conway bridge would help South Strand residents evacuate by providing an additional path around Conway. They also believe the project could be built much faster than SELL.
Jordan plans to pitch the idea to the entire legislative delegation in October. In the meantime, he and other supporters are continuing to gather information.
Vaught, the county councilman, said he would ask the county’s infrastructure and regulation division to develop some rough estimates for the cost of the project.
Those who participated in last week’s meeting acknowledged that getting the Busbee Bypass from the conceptual phase to a reality will be an uphill struggle, but they insist the project is a necessity.
“It’s for the county,” county councilman Orton Bellamy said. “It’s not just for Conway.”
The project’s future, however, will depend on political muscle, officials said.
Blain-Bellamy, the Conway mayor, said the area needs a stronger voice statewide. She argued that if other large counties such as Greenville, Richland or Charleston sought such a project, building it wouldn’t be an issue.
“It would have been alleviated decades ago,” she said. “There is something about where we sit that makes us different, and I don’t get that. I really don’t.”