‘It’s a small road going badly’: Highway 90 grows despite need for road infrastructure

Updated: May. 25, 2021 at 11:19 PM EDT
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - What once was a rural road is now turning into suburban sprawl.

Though the residents who’ve lived along Highway 90 for decades may have different ideas on how many people they’d like to see in their neighborhood, one thing is certain: the road needs to be widened. And it’s going to be very expensive.

“The traffic just keeps getting worse, and we don’t have any way to pave the road, widen it, improve it, and no money to do it,” said Tilly Swamp resident Amelia Wood. Tilly Swamp is an area situated between Highway 90′s intersections with International Drive and Highway 22.

The corridor is just another example of the massive growth Horry County is experiencing.

The 23-mile road acts as a connector between the outskirts of Conway and Little River. But instead of just a means to get somewhere else, continued development has made it a place for many others to live.

Earlier this year, South Carolina’s Department of Transportation lowered the speed limit to 45 miles per hour due to the growth.

Horry County’s interim planning director David Jordan said that happens when a road is getting close to capacity.

“In a non-technical sense, it’s getting close to how many cars it’s designed to hold,” Jordan said.

SCDOT monitors the annual average daily traffic along thousands of locations across the state.

If you take a look at just one portion of Highway 90 - from French Collins Road to Highway 22 - you’ll find that 6,100 cars traveled the road on a given day back in 2010. A department spokesperson provided the latest figures for 2020. In that year, on average, 14,400 vehicles drove down that road a day.

Another Tilly Swamp woman, Carolyn Ballington, was born and raised in the area and continues to live on her family farm off Old Highway 90. She sees more and more cars on her unpaved road as time goes on.

Ballington noted she wants an open space that she can walk and bike. She fears the continued development is being done at the expense of losing something more important.

“It’s just a terrible, terrible thing to do to a little place that is absolutely heaven,” Ballington said.

Ballington remembers a time when she could make it to Conway on Highway 90 without seeing another soul.

“And now, you can’t get on the road - waiting and waiting and waiting,” she said. “It’s a small road going badly, fastly [sic]. And there’s going to be deaths on that road. There already have been deaths on that road. Car wrecks. And I’m scared to drive on it.”

The number of accidents on the road stays at a consistently higher number than how it used to be in years past.

Data WMBF Investigates obtained from the South Carolina’s Department of Public Safety shows dozens of accidents year after year along Highway 90, many in repeat locations.

In 2011, the corridor saw 112 collisions. In 2020, that number stood at 233.

Ballington said widening the road should’ve been done over a dozen years ago.

There certainly was an attempt with the sales-tax funded RIDE III program. Pam Creech was a member of the committee to help determine which projects would be prioritized. She said they were trying to figure out how they could accomplish as much as they could with the monies coming in over that seven-year period.

“When I discussed Highway 90, I wanted it to be four lane, from where 22 exits onto Highway 90, all the way to Conway,” Creech explained. “When they came back for the figures for that, it would cost more money than all of the money we were going to get for RIDE III, which meant that so at that point, it was not going to be a viable project because monies had to go to other places.”

According to SCDOT’s Programmed Project Viewer, a portion of Highway 90, from its connection with US-501 towards Tilly Swamp, is under construction for a resurfacing project. An SCDOT official said that will also help widen the shoulder.

Further down the road, the project viewer shows a safety improvements project is in design and development, from its connection with SC-22 towards Robert Edge Parkway. An SCDOT spokesperson said this project will include “rumble stripes, wider and brighter pavement markings, brighter signs, wider/paved shoulders, eliminating vertical drop-offs along pavement edges and beveling of driveway pipes as well as resurfacing.” It’s tentatively scheduled for an August letting.

But different county officials and residents point to an estimated cost of $400 to $500 million to widen the road itself.

“You’ve got a lot of right-of-ways that is going to have to bought that people have developed years and years ago,” District 10 Councilman Danny Hardee said. “The traffic on that road is just going to be to the point that we have no option but to do it.”

Hardee and District 2 Councilman Bill Howard say widening Highway 90 and beefing up infrastructure has always been on their radar. The growing pains are found all over the county.

It’s hoped that impact fees could be another avenue to help get the road funded. County council said they will be workshopping these in June.

“That’s a very possible positive way to get things started in that area, yes,” Howard said. “Because the impact fees will be spent in the areas they’re collected - and can be used countywide, but more so in the areas they are collected.”

Hardee said it’s going to take help from state and federal resources to get the road done.

Creech is concerned about the need for infrastructure to support the continued development.

“When someone comes in and buys a home I think their assumption is, from dealing with real estate people, that they’re not just looking for a home - they’re looking for everything in a community that their life entails,” Creech said. “And I think a lot of people are real unhappy because that’s not what they are getting. And that they’re getting a lot of problems to deal with and try to work through to do.”

Infrastructure and public safety need to be up to speed across the county, Hardee said. It takes money to keep up more officers, ambulances, and 911 operators.

“I guess the shortfall of council would have been not doing like a mill or two a year, and kind of keeping up with things,” Hardee said. “No taxes, no taxes, no taxes - and now we’re in trouble.”

Jordan explained Highway 90 started being zoned in the late 1980s before the whole county was zoned by the turn of the century. Most of Highway 90 is CFA, a broad category that allows for residential housing, commercial development, and more.

“These property owners have had this designation since the ’80s,” he explained.

“Right and you can’t - once something is zoned, you can’t tell them, ‘Well actually, we don’t want you to build more houses here, because we’re getting too far to the point of no return,’” WMBF Investigates’ Madison Martin said in an interview.

“That is the concern,” Jordan replied.

Hardee said if you look at the projects already permitted, the traffic on that road would be substantially more, perhaps double the capacity.

Howard said the housing that can go on Highway 90 just in his district is extensive.

“Right now, without our permission, there can be up towards to 1,200 to 1,500 homes built,” Howard said. “So that concerns us with the ability to enforce turn lanes, passing lanes, things like that for the new subdivisions.”

Howard said they’re working on that, trying to make sure when a new development comes to them for a permit, that they have to have a traffic study. He said there’s a lot of issues they’re working through to make the road safer and a more developable area.

“But it’s not going to happen in the next ten, 15 years. It’s going to be a long-range project,” Howard said.

Indeed, Highway 90 is only going to continue being home to more and more people.

According to Horry County Planning & Zoning data from January 2021, for just one part of Highway 90 - from Depot Road to Highway 22 - there are 3,243 planned units that haven’t been constructed yet.

There are 3,243 planned units along the Hwy 90 corridor from Depot Rd to Hwy 22 that have not...
There are 3,243 planned units along the Hwy 90 corridor from Depot Rd to Hwy 22 that have not been constructed yet.(Horry County Planning & Zoning, Jan. 2021)

Hardee said if it’s already rezoned, they can’t stop it.

“You can’t tell a man that’s already got his permits, got his rezoning and everything, that he can’t build in there,” he explained.

Howard said he would love to see the rezonings slow down.

“Let’s look at the infrastructure first, see what the highway traffic studies are telling us, see what the housing developments can come in prior to us rezoning,” Howard said. “Maybe we ought to hold off more on the re-zonings and see who’s going to build on the already-zoned property for residential.”

Meanwhile, residents left waiting for change fear it will never get done.

“I’m 70 years old and I don’t think this road will be improved in my lifetime, but yet I think I’ll have a lot of new neighbors,” Wood said.

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