If there’s a right way on right-of-way, York County leaders want to find it.
One of the major costs to keep highways and interchanges up to speed amid community growth involves the land beneath the pavement. Utilities often have to move pipes or cables already in the ground to make room for road changes.
“That is a massive cost to us,” York County Council chairman Michael Johnson said at the February Rock Hill-Fort Mill Area Transportation Study policy committee meeting.
It’s also about getting as much land for road projects as planners know they’ll need, sooner.
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The South Carolina Department of Transportation has a $7.6 million turn lane project at Celanese and India Hook roads in Rock Hill. Right-of-way acquisition should begin within months. Construction should start in summer 2020. That same intersection appears on RFATS’ I-77 corridor study list.
That list outlines possible innovate options from superstreets to mass transit throughout York County and Indian Land.
“When we are applying right-of-way with something like this, are we thinking ahead to what it might become in the future?” Johnson asked. “Making sure, let’s just get that right-of-way done now.”
RFATS director David Hooper said the Celanese-India Hook intersection likely would have the needed right-of-way for a future transition after the ongoing improvements. But the larger point was made.
“We as a group have collectively determined that we need to be more aggressive in ensuring that as we go out to purchase right-of-way or have plans for egress, whatever, that we are looking to the future and not having to redo something,” said Fort Mill Mayor Guynn Savage.
Getting more land for projects isn’t simple.
“We’re not buying right-of-way for a future project,” said SCDOT Project Manager Berry Mattox. “I don’t think (federal highway officials) would think too kindly of that. I don’t really know how that would be perceived.
“We can’t just take people’s property if we don’t have a reason to,” he said.
Hooper said in some cases it’s obvious future work is coming, and in those cases, additional right-of-way often is acquired. An example is Fort Mill Parkway, built at two lanes but with enough right-of-way for expansion to five. Yet even on that project, an elevated bridge was constructed that isn’t wide enough for five lanes.
The right-of-way issue typically is a difference of feet to either side. But when it comes to utilities, those feet are critical.
Johnson points to Springfield Parkway in Fort Mill, which will have to be widened from two to five lanes as more people move to Fort Mill. Yet, utilities went in last year about 6 feet off the road.
“To me there is nothing more aggravating than, we’re going to dig up utilities that we just put into the ground 18 months ago, to expand the road probably in the next three to four years,” Johnson said. “There’s a disconnect, and somehow we’ve got to figure out how to make all of this work.”
Utility relocations for years caused cost spikes for road projects in York County. When widening at S.C. 274 and Pole Branch Road in Lake Wylie gained approval in a 2003 Pennies for Progress vote, the estimated cost was $8.5 million. By the time the project expanded and costs ballooned to $28 million, the county had to approve $3.2 million just to relocate utilities.
That 2017 decision involved costs from $60,000 for Comporium lines to $1.4 million for Utilities Inc. water and sewer. Utilities from AT&T, Carolina Water Service, York County Natural Gas Authority, York Electric Cooperative and Time Warner Cable Southeast had to be moved.
Mattox said utilities can be tricky, with their own easements that can conflict with road right-of-way. Utilities can come into right-of-way under encroachment.
“By necessity, somebody’s going to have to move, but yes, it’s a very good point,” Mattox said of Johnson’s concern. “Because that’s swallowing up a lot of project budgets.”
Right-of-way costs aren’t entirely related to utilities. But utilities factor into them.
Of the nine York County and Indian Land SCDOT non-sidewalk projects, Mattox estimated total project costs added up to more than $78 million. Right-of-way alone totaled almost $9 million, or 11 percent of the total. Right-of-way surpassed preliminary engineering costs.
Right-of-way costs came out to 15 percent of the construction costs. On one project, right-of-way equaled 23 percent of the construction and 18 percent of the total project costs.