Anderson County lawmakers are asking the state to consider widening Interstate 85 from the Georgia line as a means of economic development and easing eventual traffic gridlock.
And one of them is proposing legislation that could help improve the project’s priority ranking so that it can get funded.
“It will put us in position to be right up there with the best of them when Anderson County and Greenville want to try to move on some big economic venture to bring jobs to the people that live here,” Rep. Don Bowen of Anderson told GreenvilleOnline.com.
The I-85 widening, Bowen said, would cost between $300 million and $400 million.
He said the project ranks just below a group of interstate projects that recently have been approved for funding on the state’s transportation priority ranking list.
He hopes to improve the project’s chances through legislation he has proposed that would allow the state Department of Transportation to take a project’s short-term economic development value into consideration in calculating its ranking.
Now officials are limited by law to only considering a project’s long-term economic development value, Bowen said.
Upstate lawmakers have pushed for work on I-85 in recent years, with Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler of Gaffney describing stretches of it as dangerous.
His pleas were answered in a legislative funding package approved earlier this year that could provide $262 million to widen I-85 in Spartanburg and Cherokee counties from State Highway 57 to the North Carolina border.
About $171 million of the construction costs are still unfunded, according to the Department of Transportation.
Bowen said the other end of I-85 also needs widening because it serves as the business “front door” of the Upstate from Georgia. He said he wants to fix that front door “so it looks like we have it on the ball.”
“We feel like that interstate has made Anderson what it is,” Bowen said. “We really want to keep on top of making our entrances to the state looking like they should look.”
He and Rep. Brian White, an Anderson Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, went before the state Department of Transportation Commission last week to explain why widening the interstate from the Georgia border is necessary.
“The economic recovery is the widening of I-85, and we would like to add to that, especially in Anderson County,” Bowen said.
New businesses are expanding or locating in the county, and a widened interstate would accommodate them and prospective businesses, he said.
Bowen said the mind-numbing traffic jams of the Atlanta area are moving north up I-85 and eventually will enter South Carolina.
Already, he said, the stretch of I-85 from the border to Exit 19 has been the location of more than 800 accidents over the past two years involving 1,361 vehicles, with 191 injuries and 12 fatalities.
During the same time period, he said, there have been 152 hits on cable barriers.
“A lot of this could be brought under control if our roads were wide enough to accommodate the traffic,” he said.
White said he believes the widening eventually will be done.
“I think it will happen,” he said. “I think we have the other things going. It depends on whether the funding is available. We have the need. It would be a big expense, but worth it.”
Transportation Department Chairman Johnny Edwards of Travelers Rest said widening that part of I-85 is a good idea, but the project currently isn’t a top priority in the state’s system and the state has to follow the ranking in deciding which projects to fund with the money it has.
“The problem is it doesn’t rank as high as the other projects,” he said.
It also will cost more than most, he said. Just constructing new bridges over Lake Hartwell will be a huge expense, he said.
“That’s going to be a tough hurdle to get over,” he said of the project’s cost. “We’re looking at that just like we are looking at all of I-85. If and when it comes up and if we have the financing, we’ll do it.”
Bowen said the cost of the bridges is a drawback, but he hopes the Legislature will add additional transportation funding next year.
“I think we’ve got to all sit down at the table,” he said.