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New year to bring I-385 detour shock

The unprecedented closure of Interstate 385 next month could cost millions in lost fuel and time for Upstate businesses and untold more for taxpayers, who will not only bob and weave over detour routes but could also end up paying to fix the wear and tear on those roads.

State legislators said the fallout is almost certain to shock large numbers of people who still don't know about the closure and weren't adequately consulted by state Department of Transportation officials, who they say failed to weigh the impact a Laurens County project would have next door, in the state's economic hub in Greenville.

Rep. Wendy Nanney, R-Greenville, said the DOT has "rushed" toward the state's first closure of an interstate while refusing to amend its plans and that she doubts state officials would allow a similar shutdown of I-26 near Charleston.

Sen. Glenn McConnell of Charleston, president pro tem of the Senate, told The Greenville News he opposes closing the northbound side of the interstate, but that the decision is a consequence of changes in how the transportation department is governed that has muted the voice of elected officials. He said that has left out factors such as convenience and economic impact.

Asked if he would have used his powerful position in the state Senate to block similar action on I-26 near Charleston, McConnell laughed and said legislators have "very little impact on it now."

"The Department of Transportation pretty much has its own rudder now," he said. "And folks who have argued that we should centralize authority in Columbia and give these agencies this type of authority now complain about their decisions. That's the consequence of it."

Attempts to reach Transportation Secretary Buck Limehouse were unsuccessful.

John Walsh, the DOT's chief engineer for planning, location and design, said the agency made a mistake not reaching into Greenville and Anderson for more public input but that the project likely wouldn't have changed.

State Sen. David Thomas said it wasn't a mistake.

"They did that on purpose," Thomas said. "They didn't want to come to Greenville and tell Greenville, 'We're going to close down the interstate.' I just see it in a much more malevolent light."

PUBLIC CONVENIENCE

Rob Perry, DOT's program manager for the project, said about half of the average daily traffic that flows through the Laurens County project area - about 4,000 vehicles - continues to Greenville.

The $60.9 million project, which will raise bridges and replace 15 miles of asphalt with 10-inch concrete, will begin Jan. 4.

Perry said a more traditional construction approach with single-lane closures would have cost close to $95 million and taken much longer.

McConnell said DOT officials consider "supposedly objective" criteria in making construction decisions under reform laws passed by the Legislature, but he has discovered agency officials are weighting certain factors more than others.

Meanwhile, he believes more subjective factors should also be included.

"They ought to consider both the convenience of the public and the economics of the Upcountry in how they make these decisions, not on whether it ends up being the least expensive way," McConnell said.

"Because it can end up being expensive based on other criteria outside of the world that they live in."

Walsh said the agency has to operate under the procedures detailed in reform legislation, and the I-385 project was approved in 2007 as part of the agency's ranking process for rehabilitation.

He said agency officials have since agreed to track the condition of Greenville County roads that could be used for detours and coordinate traffic with school zones as the result of local concerns brought up at a meeting last month.

A public meeting in the Laurens YMCA next week is the last forum before the project begins. Perry said it is less a public hearing and more an information session to notify people about the pending closure. There won't be one in Greenville.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

State Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, said it was a "bad time" for the DOT to decide to rip up the entire northbound side, particularly since Greenville has no representation on the agency's commission.

Thomas said state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, wrote the DOT a letter at his urging asking whether the agency had done an economic impact study.

Thomas said it hasn't.

Perry said the agency doesn't do economic impact studies and that it consulted four other states with experience closing an interstate. Only one had done such a study, in reaction to a late-stage outcry from the public, he said.

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