Waccamaw River

A bridge may be built over the Waccamaw River to connect S.C. 544 and U.S. 701.

State lawmakers want to see more details about the Busbee Bypass before deciding if they will support the Conway road and bridge project.

The proposed bypass would connect U.S. 701 South with S.C. 544 via a bridge over the Waccamaw River. Last week, the road’s supporters met with the Horry County legislative delegation in Conway. Several lawmakers said they liked the idea, but they want to see a cost estimate and a specific map of the route, including the impact on private landowners. 

“There’s a good bit, I think, that needs to be brought to us,” said state Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Conway. “It’s kind of hard to go up there [to Columbia] and say, ‘Well, we need money. We don’t know how much.’” 

The bypass is the brainchild of Realtor Jimmy Jordan, who is chairing a bypass committee organized by the Conway Chamber of Commerce. The committee consists of local leaders who support the project, including Coastal Carolina University President David DeCenzo, Horry County Councilman Johnny Vaught, Horry County Auditor Lois Eargle and Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy.

The bypass would essentially be an extension of the Conway perimeter road that’s part of the county’s RIDE III road construction program. It would run from U.S. 701 South across the river and join S.C. 544 near the Bojangles’ restaurant. 

Supporters contend the project would improve traffic congestion on U.S. 501 and provide an elevated thoroughfare in case an extreme flood overtakes 501near the river. State and federal officials built emergency dams along U.S. 501 in 2018 to keep flood water off the highway. Last year’s flooding closed other major routes, including S.C. 9, S.C. 905 and S.C. 22.

“We have seen how vulnerable we are in Conway and Myrtle Beach,” Jordan told lawmakers Friday. “We have got a situation where we could lose 501. … We’ve got an opportunity to do something about it.”

During the meeting, state officials pressed committee members about whether the bypass would be in competition with other proposed road projects, such as I-73 and the Southern Evacuation Lifeline (SELL). SELL is another bridge project that would link the South Strand with U.S. 701.

“I had heard through the grapevine that there were at least discussions about taking SELL money away from SELL to do this,” said state Rep. Russell Fry, R-Surfside Beach. “I want to be very clear: the SELL project … I see it as more beneficial to the south end than this.”

State Rep. Heather Ammons Crawford, R-Socastee, agreed.

“I do believe that this is a valuable project,” she said of the bypass. “However, I do not want to see a competing project with the SELL project or the I-73 project, which I believe are very beneficial to our area.”

Vaught stressed that the three projects address different needs. He also said the money already set aside for SELL in the county’s roads program can’t be moved because the voters approved it for that purpose.

Both Vaught and Jordan stressed that the Busbee Bypass could be built quicker than SELL because much of the path falls on public land.

“[SELL] is a longer-term project that we can continue to work on while we do a shorter-term project that will have more immediate benefits,” Vaught said.

“This is an interim solution,” Jordan said.

Apart from potential competition, lawmakers also raised questions about whether the state-run utility Santee Cooper, which owns much of the land that would be used for the bypass, would back the project.

Vaught said the potential sale of Santee Cooper complicates the situation, but early discussions with some Santee Cooper officials have gone well. 

“They don’t have any other use for the land,” he said.

Jordan added that he had been in touch with David Singleton, who sits on the Santee Cooper board, and had received a supportive letter from the former CEO. He has not spoken with the utility’s new chief executive.

“We certainly don’t have any blanket approval of this,” Jordan said. “Obviously, it’s been a discussion.”

Jordan added that he hopes the utility would be willing to transfer the land to the S.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) for the bypass.

Jordan is trying to set up his own meeting with DOT officials to explain the bypass proposal.

As for the cost, that’s another question lawmakers said needs a firm answer. Vaught said he suspects the bypass would require about $150 million, but he has asked county staff to prepare a more detailed estimate. How the project would be paid for also remains a mystery, though bypass supporters have suggested borrowing money from the S.C.Transportation Infrastructure Bank.

Another issue lawmakers raised involves proposed improvements to U.S. 501. The DOT is seeking a federal grant to pay for elevating the highway near the river. But Vaught said the construction associated with raising 501 would create traffic headaches, something he insists won’t be a problem with the bypass proposal.

Ultimately, committee members agreed their proposal is in the fledgling stage and they said they would return to state lawmakers armed with additional research. 

“You’re right,” Jordan told the delegation. “There are a lot of nuts and bolts to work out.”

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