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"It is about time." The words of Calhoun County Development Commission Executive Director Pat Black can be shouted from the rooftops throughout Orangeburg and Calhoun counties regarding a plan to widen Interstate 26 through the two counties.

The good news is the S.C. Department of Transportation has set the wheels in motion to make such a project happen. The bad news is it will take a long time – and a lot of money.

I-26 is the state’s longest interstate highway. In South Carolina it runs east to west from Charleston through Spartanburg and on into North Carolina. Widening projects have improved the interstate greatly around Charleston and Columbia, but there remains the bottleneck with only four lanes outside metro Charleston, through Orangeburg, Calhoun and portions of Lexington, and nearing metro Columbia.

Expanding to six lanes in the corridor between Charleston and Columbia is a top priority for development as the route is crucial for the S.C. Ports Authority. The widening stands to directly benefit Orangeburg and Calhoun development, whether it is with landing suppliers for industries in the Charleston and Columbia areas, or securing “game-changing” industries of our own.

While the S.C. Department of Transportation has targeted rural highway safety as a top priority in a state with the nation’s deadliest roads and that alone would be enough to justify improving Interstate 26, the SCDOT Commission is looking at the movement of freight in designating I-26 and the southernmost area of Interstate 95 – another stretch of highway that any traveler can attest is a dangerous bottleneck.

“Trucking is the primary mode of freight travel in South Carolina and it’s projected to grow by more than 60 percent over the next two decades,” Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall said.

“To close the widening gap on I-26 between Columbia and Charleston is estimated to cost about $1.8 billion in today’s dollars and to widen the first 33 miles of I-95 is estimated to cost $1.2 billion. We must start today with identifying how to break these corridors into projects that can be advanced as funding becomes available,” she said.

The commission approved directing $110 million annually toward the widening projects once the fuel-tax-credit program sunsets in July 2023. This is the six-year program in which motorists can file for tax credits connected to the increased fuel tax enacted in 2017.

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Specifically, the SCDOT plans to widen I-26 from Old Sandy Run Road in Calhoun County (exit 125) to Ridgeville Road (exit 187) in Berkeley County. The work would be done in multiple phases, most likely beginning at Old Sandy Run Road and proceeding toward Charleston, SCDOT spokeswoman Lauren Rountree told The Times and Democrat. "Our plans are to complete the necessary preliminary work to have projects ready to go to contract as soon as possible once the funding becomes available.”

Just how soon the I-26 widening can become reality is unclear. Even if construction began today, it would take considerable time to accomplish. But moving to the top of the priority list is a key step forward. There seems little disagreement over the necessity.

We echo the words of 6th District Commissioner J. Barnwell Fishburne: “Improving the I-95 and I-26 interstate corridors is absolutely critical to the continued economic growth of the state and it is long overdue. I applaud the staff and commission for recognizing that we needed to address the interstate needs in the rural areas of the state.”

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