As transportation leaders await details on how to relieve traffic on the Rock Hill side of I-77, voices on the Fort Mill side are unified and clear. A new bridge to bring it across the river, they say, isn’t the answer.
On June 23, the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study policy committee voted to study multiple transportation options rather than simply update a bridge feasibility study the same group scrapped five years ago. Leaders representing the Fort Mill and Tega Cay areas, then and now, say tying up federal funding in the region for years on a $60 million or more project isn’t the best solution.
Take a look at some of the input received:
▪ RFATS received three online comments in days leading into the bridge discussion, all from Fort Mill and all against the bridge from the Celanese Road area of Rock Hill to the Sutton Road area of Fort Mill. Crescent Communities, developing Masons Bend in the area where a bridge would cross, sent a letter opposing the bridge and its impact on the company’s $41 million investment.
One Rock Hill resident and business owner did address the RFATS committee, saying it “would be in our best interests to at least research” the bridge. Several more Fort Mill residents spoke out against the bridge.
▪ The entire Fort Mill Town Council, along with at least two former members, attended the RFATS meeting. Councilman Larry Huntley addressed the committee, saying there are two reasons to study an issue. To find an answer to a problem, he said, or to create a reasoning for a predetermined plan.
“Sometimes I feel like this is what the bridge is all about,” Huntley said of the latter.
Traffic on Celanese Road in Rock Hill is the reason leaders there give for needing a bridge. Huntley said the multiple traffic lights bunched together at the interstate there are a main reason for that traffic, and reworking that road could help.
“You might have to buy a restaurant and a couple of service stations,” he said, “but that’s a whole lot cheaper than buying a bridge.”
▪ Councilman Chris Moody said the committee’s final decision “is a win-win for the taxpayers.”
“Spending $100 million on a bridge does not fix the problem; Rather it moves the problem from Rock Hill onto Sutton Road,” Moody said. “By doing this, small businesses would be shuttered, families would lose their homes, and Fort Mill would bear the burden of even more traffic. It is a relief knowing the policy committee is open to alternative studies to fix a rather complex issue.”
▪ Former Councilman and town planning commission member Tom Adams said money that could be used throughout the RFATS area would be tied to the project, which wouldn’t help residents on both sides of the new bridge. Comments so far from Fort Mill, he said, would only be the beginning.
“There is enormous public opposition to this,” Adams said.
▪ Former Councilman Tom Spratt told the RFATS committee funds are needed throughout its area, which includes Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Tega Cay, unincorporated York County and parts of the Lake Wylie and Indian Land communities.
“This is a problem that affects a portion of the area, not the entire area,” Spratt said.
Plus, he said, it wouldn’t solve a larger traffic issue.
“It only funnels it into one area,” he said.
▪ Resident Mike Spratt agreed, a larger issue would remain.
“You’re just moving the traffic two miles down the road,” he said.
At peak traffic times, backups occur as far up as Carowinds and Tega Cay, he said. Building a bridge might change where some traffic occurs on the interstate, but wouldn’t relieve it.
“It’s still going to stop and slow down,” Spratt said.
▪ Members of the RFATS committee itself made their positions known, too. Fort Mill Mayor Guynn Savage said if all options were studied and a bridge emerged as the best choice, her response may be different. But it seems, she said, like the position dating back to 2002 has been to look at a bridge and a bridge only.
“How did we get to this point where the feasibility study only focused on the feasibility of a bridge to move that problem across the river?” Savage said.
▪ York County Councilman and committee member Michael Johnson said a bridge study would need to account for its traffic impact not just to Celanese Road, but to U.S. 21, S.C. 160, Gold Hill and Pleasant roads, among others. Johnson said he has a daughter born when the bridge discussion came up in 2002, and now she is old enough to drive him to dinner. His point, that plenty has changed in so long a span.
Johnson said he guarantees if the group asks for a study on whether a bridge is feasible, it will return saying one is. But studying just whether a bridge can be built doesn’t get at the bigger question, he said, of whether it is needed.
“If your bridge doesn’t fix the overall problem in your area then, no, you don’t need a bridge,” Johnson said.
▪ Tega Cay Mayor and committee member George Sheppard said the continued resurfacing of the bridge idea, which he and others on his side of the river voted not to proceed with years ago, is reason enough to look at how RFATS operates. Sheppard asked for a review of what it would take to run the organization out of a larger planning organization, like the state Department of Transportation or regional Council of Governments, rather than the planning department in Rock Hill.
“I’m not saying we’re doing it today,” Sheppard said. “I want to know what it takes to do that.”
▪ York County Councilman Britt Blackwell, another committee member, represents the Rock Hill area but as chairman of his group, also serves the entire county. Blackwell said he isn’t married to the idea for or against the bridge. He wants the best answer to the biggest traffic issue, whether a bridge or feeder route elsewhere.
“I certainly want to keep an open mind and find the best solution,” Blackwell said. “I’m open to anything that works best.”
▪ Rock Hill Mayor and committee chairman Doug Echols said, while Celanese traffic is a top issue for members on the Rock Hill side, he isn’t opposed to a wider study on how to fix the problem. Yet he cautioned against over studying the issue, as the $170,000 put into the bridge feasibility work already would need another $55,000 and perhaps six months to update it for current conditions. A wider study would cost more and take longer.
All while construction and other cost factors increase.
“We’ve been chewing on this for a long, long time,” Echols said. “There’s a real lesson here on putting the brakes on the data.”