They didn’t vote for a new bridge. Not yet. Not without a few more options on the table.
Policy committee members with Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study voted Friday not to resurrect a years-old study for a Catawba River bridge crossing, but instead to widen the scope of study to include alternatives.
“We wasted five years as a group in coming to a resolution to a problem that does exist,” said Fort Mill Mayor Guynn Savage. “But the problem is only looking at one solution.”
The bridge discussion isn’t new. In 2012, RFATS planned a 30-day public comment period until the policy committee voted to suspend further planning. Then state Rep. Ralph Norman and Sen. Wes Hayes questioned spending $60 to $80 million or more on the bridge, tying up RFATs resources for years.
The idea then was to build a bridge connecting the Mount Gallant and Celanese Road area of Rock Hill to the Sutton Road area of Fort Mill. Rock Hill leaders saw as a way to ease congestion, while Fort Mill leaders saw it as relocation of traffic.
Then-Fort Mill Mayor Danny Funderburk and Tega Cay Mayor George Sheppard sided with scrapping the bridge plan. Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols didn’t.
Echols again brought up the problematic Celanese area in 2015 during long-range planning, saying RFATS couldn’t look past it and congestion “is just going to continue to grow.” Funderburk countered saying with more schools and homes in the area, development “had interjected enough conditions that it was virtually impossible” to move forward with the bridge.
Others in Fort Mill questioned traffic projections, saying more cars would be added to their side of the bridge than Rock Hill leaders forecast.
Norman said another issue is putting such an expensive road improvement over a river, where business can’t develop directly around it to help offset the cost.
Friday’s action came a month after the policy committee voted to look at the earlier bridge study and see how viable the plan is now. Sheppard spoke out strongest against that action, saying he was “extremely disheartened” the group voted knowing several key members from north of the Catawba weren’t there to protest. Sheppard said Rock Hill members held a “secret meeting” on the issue.
“This is pure politics,” Sheppard said. “A re-election seems to be more important than doing what is right.”
Rock Hill leaders denied any effort to manipulate decisions within the group. The issue came up when it did, they said, because of study’s long-range plan coming on the agenda.
“Any time you have these kinds of discussions, you get people who have had conversations or were not included in conversations outside of policy committee work,” Echols said. “And so all of that, somehow, is sometimes misinterpreted.”
Echols said the end goal isn’t a bridge but to improve conditions that started the conversations 15 years ago.
“And that’s to try to improve the traffic volume, the traffic flow, off of Celanese,” he said.
David Hooper said updating the bridge feasibility study wouldn’t be easy. It cost about $170,000 to date and would be another $55,000, plus five or six months to bring to current conditions.
“It would have to take account of all new developments in place,” Hooper said.
Hooper will return in September with more information on what a fuller study could entail. Some on Friday urged including multiple options beyond building a bridge.
“Let’s look at a study on how to move traffic and not just a bridge study,” said York County Councilman Michael Johnson. “There is a huge difference.”
The group also voted Friday, in response to the bridge question, to revisit how RFATS operates. Sheppard said the group has become a “jurisdictional, not a regional, group.” Though it serves Rock Hill and Fort Mill, it also serves Tega Cay, and unincorporated parts of York County, including Lake Wylie and Indian Land. However, it operates out of Rock Hill and staff falls within Rock Hill planning.
Possibilities could include RFATS running out of the South Carolina Department of Transportation or regional Council of Governments. More details are expected in September.
“If we can study a bridge we can study why we exist,” Sheppard said. “Probably cheaper.”
The bridge plan isn’t entirely dead, however, as the broader study likely would include one as an option.
“It looks like we’re looking to focus on the same issue in the same area,” Echols said, “with different solutions.”