Rock Hill leaders want another bridge over the Catawba

Rock Hill officials want to get your car off Celanese Road.

In the next 20 years, traffic projections say an extra 18,000 cars per day will pass through the mile-long stretch between Mount Gallant Road and Interstate 77, putting a strain on the roadway and creating a headache for drivers.

To avoid that gridlocked future, the city of Rock Hill is reviving a proposal that would redirect more traffic off one of the county’s most congested roadways: build a new bridge over the Catawba River.

City officials hope the new bridge, which would span from Mount Gallant Road on the Catawba’s southwestern shore to Sutton Road on the other side, will give drivers from western York County an alternate route to reach the interstate.

“With the bridge, we can keep the number of cars on Celanese about where it is now, which is already kind of high,” said Bill Meyer, Rock Hill’s planning and development director. “Without the bridge, traffic will increase by 40 or 45 percent.”

But the idea of a bridge in the Mount Gallant area has already been muted once before, in 2012, but didn’t survive a review by the Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study Committee, the group that sets transportation priorities for eastern York County and the Lancaster panhandle. Many of that group’s members are still skeptical the bridge proposal will be worthwhile or affordable.

State Rep. Ralph Norman, who serves on the RFATS committee, said the bridge project would spend too much of the body’s transportation funding on one project in too small an area.

“I voted against it (in 2012), and I would do it again,” said Norman, a Rock Hill Republican.

Debate around the bridge highlights the different priorities for various parts of the county. While Rock Hill worries about traffic congestion on one of its main roads, officials from the Fort Mill area worry a new Catawba bridge would send more traffic problems their way.

“If instead that traffic turns south onto Sutton (from the bridge), that would require tremendous upgrading,” said York County Councilman Michael Johnson, who represents the Fort Mill area. “We’ve got to fix our existing traffic problems.”

RFATS is set up to balance transportation priorities among different municipalities and levels of government. The mayors of Rock Hill, Tega Cay and Fort Mill are all represented on the group’s policy committee, along with members of York and Lancaster county councils and the legislators representing urban areas.

Rock Hill’s concerns reflect traffic studies showing traffic-flow issues on Celanese will only get worse. The city’s traffic modeling shows Celanese is the main artery feeding into I-77 for the county’s largest “travel shed,” stretching west to York and beyond. The shed holds a population of 81,783, more than double the number of people in the next largest travel shed, the Cherry Road corridor that sweeps to the southwest along McConnells Highway and holds 39,830 people.

By 2035, city planners say a bridge to divert more I-77 traffic would be needed to hold the daily number of cars entering and exiting on Celanese to 40,100. Without the bridge, it would balloon to 57,700 a day.

“It already has the highest traffic volume, and it’s only going to increase because of the flow to 77,” said Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols. “We have to have relief, and the prudent way to do that is for RFATS to at least let the process move forward.”

Rock Hill officials contend the Catawba River bridge was long considered one of the top priorities for the study committee. A feasibility study was completed, the bridge’s future traffic levels projected, and a route selected to link the two sides of the river. But in May 2012, the RFATS committee voted to shelve the project before it reached a 30-day public comment period, which was considered the last step before approval.

Opponents of the bridge argued its cost, at an estimated $60 million, would eat up the remainder of RFATS’s budget for the next 20 years. Of the $116 million allocated for road work in the RFATS area, $62 million has already been committed to other projects, including $15 million for improving the I-77 interchange on Celanese.

“The problem with this project then was it would take up all the funding we have for a number of years,” said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill. “At the time, it just was not important enough of a project.”

Norman argues the bridge won’t have enough of an economic impact to justify spending the money. Unlike other road extensions that invite new development, residents and businesses to their roadsides, the bridge project would spend a lot of money on a 2.5-mile stretch concentrated on the river itself.

“You can’t put much new development on water,” he said.

But city officials argue relieving traffic on one of the area’s main roadways would boost its economic prospects. Johnson notes that since 2012, the construction of hundreds of new homes have been approved along Sutton Road, and Fort Mill Mayor Danny Funderburk points out the approved development even includes the site of a new school.

That makes it even more important, Rock Hill argues, that action be taken soon to get the bridge proposal on the books.

“If more development comes in, it will block the potential for this project, and it will be harder and more expensive to solve the problem somewhere else,” Echols said.

The RFATS committee will hold its next meeting Friday, and Echols may bring the issue up then, hoping the committee will at least agree to finish the study process it tabled three years earlier.

“Sooner rather than later would be better,” he said.