For many visitors to high-profile events such as USC football games and the S.C. State Fair, their first glimpse of Columbia and Richland County includes a jungle of overheard utility lines hanging along the Bluff Road corridor coming into town from Interstate 77.
When construction begins to widen that stretch of Bluff about two years from now, those power and phone lines could be buried underground.
But to do so would tack on as much as $9.5 million extra to a project already expected to cost $21.1 million out of the Richland County transportation penny sales tax fund, according to county transportation director Rob Perry.
“It looks great, but it’s not cheap,” Perry said.
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Utility lines already are being buried on the one-third-mile stretch of Bluff beside the State Fairgrounds, where road widening construction should be finished before the influx of football and fair traffic next fall.
As plans progress for the next phase of the Bluff Road widening – the two-mile stretch between National Guard Road and South Beltline Boulevard south of Williams-Brice Stadium – Richland County Council has to decide: Is moving the lines underground worth the cost?
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bury the power lines on a major gateway into this county that thousands upon thousands of people travel on each year,” Councilman Seth Rose said.
The Bluff Road project’s budget already includes about $3 million for the cost of relocating the utility lines to widen the road, Perry said. But to bury the lines, council has to come up with a source, or sources, for the additional cost.
Councilman Paul Livingston, chairman of the council transportation committee that guides the spending of penny sales tax dollars, agrees that utility lines would be better off underground than above. But, he said, the benefits of burying the utility lines are not worth taking money away from other penny-funded transportation projects.
“I’m not willing to compromise something that people already voted for,” Livingston said of the list of penny projects voters approved in 2012.
If council members are not willing to put more penny tax money toward the project, there are other sources.
The county could consider asking the University of South Carolina and the city of Columbia to be funding partners, Rose said.
Or, Perry suggested, council could consider other sources of funding within the county’s coffers, such as hospitality tax dollars, which are meant to promote tourism-related activities. Other options, such as highly competitive federal grants, also are worth pursuing, Perry said.
Or, council could look at burying the lines for part of, rather than the full stretch of the project to cut down the cost.
Rose said he will support whatever it takes, short of raiding the budgets of other penny tax projects, to bury Bluff Road’s utility lines.
“If this is ever going to happen, now is the time to bring it to life,” Rose said.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.