While much of the statewide transportation news in the past two weeks has been focused on a new interstate to Myrtle Beach, Midlands leaders are excited about a second project approved at the same time to much less fanfare.
Lexington County officials say they were caught off-guard two weeks ago when the South Carolina Transportation Commission decided to move forward with five highway projects, including an expressway that would connect the Columbia Metropolitan Airport with Interstate 26.
The John Hardee Expressway has been up in the air for over a decade. A four-lane highway opened at the airport in 2004, but did not extend all the way to Interstate 26, as was originally intended. As a result, only half of the expressway was complete for the next six years.
For local leaders like Randy Halfacre, President of the Lexington County Chamber of Commerce, that full route is now closer than ever.
It kind of caught me flat-footed, to be honest with you. I knew they were having a meeting, but I did not know that they had on the agenda to move forward on the funding for these…projects.
Several local governments, led by Lexington County, cobbled together $13.7 million in the past year for the necessary match funding. Halfacre said a recent commitment by the mayor of Columbia may have helped get the project over the hump.
Construction would be financed by roughly $63 million in general obligation bonds, in addition to the local and federal money. Those bonds still have to be approved by the state Joint Bond Review Commission and the Budget and Control Board before the project can move forward. Halfacre, who is also mayor of the town of Lexington, said he is optimistic.
This was about as big of a hurdle as the (Department of Transportation)…has ever overcome, because there’s no money. When there’s no money, there’s very few options.
Halfacre said the expressway is part of a promise made to United Parcel Service when it opened a major distribution center near the airport in 1996. 15 years later, county leaders are nervous that UPS will eventually close the facility without a direct link to the interstate. The company estimates it loses $500,000 each year in gasoline costs due to traffic on SC 302–currently the only major road it can use to reach the interstate.
Construction on the connector could begin as soon as the summer of 2012, although that would require a smooth passage through the approval process.