Public largely out of the loop on Dave Lyle extension plan

When Bobby Harrell declared his support last week for extending Dave Lyle Boulevard across the Catawba River, he joined what backers hope will be a growing list of elected officials to unite behind the project.

But Harrell, the S.C. House speaker who lives three hours away in Charleston, appears to know more about the $120 million idea than many local people whose lives will be affected by it.

Harrell got a half-hour briefing on Thursday from Mayor Doug Echols and York County Council Chairman Buddy Motz -- more than what most residents have heard discussed about the plan in years.

Players on both sides of the debate acknowledge that the general public has been told little about the ramifications of a longer Dave Lyle, even though many describe it as the single biggest economic development decision facing York County in the next 20 years.

Closer look coming soon?

That may soon change. York County has commissioned the University of South Carolina's business school to do an economic impact study exploring tax revenues and jobs created by the road, Motz said.

The study would move the debate to a public setting, where supporters and critics can argue over the merits using up-to-date numbers rather than conjecture.

At that point, the public would get a chance to weigh in before the County Council commits to an outcome. Until now, talks have taken place mainly in closed-door venues.

In July, 75 elected officials and business leaders packed a banquet room at Thursday's Too restaurant to share their views at a lunch meeting called by state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill.

On Thursday, Harrell told some 150 politicians, educators, bankers, lawyers and others at an invitation-only luncheon that he will push legislation to shift tax revenues that would cover much of the cost.

"The rhetoric is coming from the same small group of invited people," said Betty Rankin, a critic of the road who lives near the proposed route. "That's the way things get done. The average person has not been involved."

Will debate open up?

Unlike in a rezoning dispute over a new subdivision or a plan to put a landfill in a residential area, the extension debate generates no natural constituency of regular folks.

That's because it cuts through woods east of town, where relatively few people live. But the road's consequences are vast, supporters and opponents say, from the likelihood of new shopping centers and corporate offices to added traffic and burdens on the school district.

"Right now, the discussion and the sharing are mainly among the elected officials, who are making sure all of them get on the same page," City Manager Carey Smith said. "When that happens, and I believe it will, a much larger effort will be made to make residents aware."

Critics want a number of questions answered. Among them: How many local drivers would use the extension, given that it runs east-to-west, not directly north into Charlotte? Could money be better spent on improving existing roads? And would a longer Dave Lyle prevent the county from keeping pace with growth pressures?

"I am confident that the addition of that road will convert ten, twenty thousand acres into a new collection of urban sprawl, and the very thing people told us they did not want to see," County Councilman Rick Lee said. "We can't even keep our bridges in order. And yet, we're ready to run out into the woods and spend $150 million on a bridge to nowhere."

A long-term vision

That's where supporters argue Lee's rationale is flawed. In their view, the road doesn't go "nowhere," but to U.S. 521 in Lancaster County's panhandle area, which is rapidly emerging as a Charlotte suburb.

The study will shed light on how much York County stands to benefit, in terms of jobs and tax base. Findings should be available in less than two months, Motz said.

"You don't want to go to the public and say you're going to build it and here's why it's good," he said. "The next question will be, well, why is it good? You've got to do your homework so that you can answer the questions."

With huge pieces of land near the river likely to be developed in coming years anyway, proponents contend the road would allow for orderly growth patterns -- not subdivisions popping up here and there.

Smith raised a perspective last week that both sides likely will agree with: "The worst thing that can happen, in my mind, is to do nothing and sort of let things develop on their own," he said. "Then, we'll all wonder, 'Why didn't we pay more attention to this?'"