Federal violations to blame for delay in Hwy 31 completion

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Highway 31, or Carolina Bays Parkway, is a road some have called the road to nowhere.

The South Carolina Department of Transportation insisted Highway 31 would relieve congestion on Highway 17 Bypass all the way through the Grand Strand.

Then, two years ago construction on the parkway suddenly stopped and people have been pointing fingers of blame ever since.

After laying out the facts, you'll see the truth about how the hold-up involves everything from changes to the route, to violations of federal laws.

A picture was painted of Highway 31 as a limited access parkway that would take thousands of cars off busy Highway 17. It would also connect the north and south strands with lightning speed, getting you all the way to Georgetown faster than ever before.

So why did the South Carolina Department of Transportation thumb its nose at federal law during its construction? And why can no one agree on what this road should look like when and if it every gets done?

Mike Barbee is the project manger from the SCDOT. He admits the project hasn't reached it's full potential. In fact, it could be another generation before we see the Carolina Bays Parkway reaching its full impact.

The $215 million highway has not had the significant impact on Highway 17 Bypass congestion. That does not concern those who pushed the need for Highway 31.

"If a Highway 31 was not in place now, there would be some citizens saying, 'I can't believe you all haven't done anything to provide another north-south route'," says Barbee.

Once completed, perhaps the route would offer that north-south connection, but construction on the grand parkway stopped abruptly in 2010. The reason is really quite simple, a change of plan.

The original design called for Highway 31 to stretch from Highway 9 in the Little River area all the way to Highway 544, then loop back into Highway 17 Bypass just north of Murrells Inlet.

Then SCDOT had what it considers a better idea, to connect with Highway 707 instead, using county funds to widen 707 and complete the loop that way.

On the surface, that modification was no big deal, until you dig a bit deeper.

If you want to know what really put the breaks on the Highway 31 project, it starts with more than 50 acres of wetlands, destroyed by SCDOT contractors in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

The Army Corps of Engineers will tell you the loss of a single acre can effect everything from your drinking water to our ability to handle storm surge from a hurricane.

"It's going to impact facilities. It's going to impact infrastructure," says Lt. Col. Edward Chamberlayne, the Corps' Commander. It's gonna impact people's homes, people's businesses. It's gonna wash out roads. So every acre of the storage pool is something that's gonna impact our infrastructure."

The Corps of Engineers even discovered more damage than SCDOT was alerting them to. That sparked more than a year of negotiations to repair or replace it.

The issue was so important to the federal authorities, a special compliance workshop had to be held in Columbia this summer, with 250 SCDOT field workers and construction supervisors in attendance. The Corps was not going to let this happen again.

Barbee addressed the issue of whether the SCDOT was trying to get away with damaging wetlands and just walking away from it.

"Absolutely not," according to Barbee. "DOT does nothing with the attempt to conceal any activities.

There are plenty out there who will need more convincing.

"They continue to kind of manipulate the design of the Carolina Bays Parkway," says Nancy Cave of the Coastal Conservation League. "And so it makes you wonder what we're all gonna end up with."

The Conservation League is convinced SCDOT's modification also comes with an ulterior motive. That motivation being a bridge over the Waccamaw River to connect the west side communities to east side businesses, and relieve South Strand congestion. It wasn't hard to confirm that suspicion.

"How do you handle all the traffic coming through Pawley's Island and Litchfield Beach," asks Representative, Nelson Hardwick (R) District 106. "Why is it there? Because you didn't build a bridge across the river to 707, that's why."

The Corps of Engineers just received a copy of the latest environmental impact study for the completion of Highway 31.

"I have not signed it; I have not approved it," says Chamberlayne.

We are still months away from another shovel in the ground at the termination of Highway 31. SCDOT just wants to get this road connected to Highway 17.

Officials in the South Strand want to see the bridge over the Waccamaw River, while conservationists will continue to fight to make sure another wetland destroying accident doesn't happen again.

The hope for everyone involved in this project is that public hearings can begin for the final leg of Highway 31 by the beginning of 2013.

In fact, SCDOT is holding a presentation of the plan on Dec. 11 between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Socastee High School. That will be your best chance to see exactly what's now being planned for the Carolina Bays Parkway.

Copyright 2012 WMBF News. All rights reserved.