The state highway commission's decision to close part of Interstate 385 to northbound traffic for at least eight months underscores Greenville's waning clout in Columbia and the influence of Charleston officials on an unprecedented project with Upstate economic implications, current and former state officials said.
Rex Carter, a Greenville attorney and former speaker of the House of Representatives, said the impact of the 15-mile Laurens County project on neighboring Greenville County was never adequately considered, and that powerful lawmakers in other parts of the state would have never stood for such a closure near their home turf.
"It wouldn't have happened outside of Charleston; I'll guarantee it," Carter said. "I would guarantee you (state Sen. Glenn) McConnell would have been in there fighting with both feet."
Hugh Atkins, of Spartanburg, the Department of Transportation commissioner representing Greenville, said the huge construction project was "hastily" put together and "pretty much a done deal" by the time commissioners became seriously involved, but that he believes the decision to shut the interstate was ultimately correct.
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"There's no question that the lower part of the state is pretty dominating not only in the Legislature but on the commission," Atkins said, noting that Transportation Secretary Buck Limehouse also is from Charleston and that the representation problem is "probably getting worse."
Attempts to reach top DOT administrators Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Rob Perry, DOT's program manager for the project, said the decision to shut down northbound travel on Greenville's main link to the rest of the state was based on safety concerns, time savings and a lower price tag.
However, Atkins said he believes commissioners don't spend enough time listening to the details of highway projects and that they weren't engaged in a serious discussion on I-385 until far too late, after the contract had been sealed.
"By that time, it was a snowball rolling," Atkins said.
Asked last week by The Greenville News whether he would have intervened if the state's first interstate closure were being proposed near Charleston, McConnell laughed and said that there isn't much legislators can do under legislation that reformed the agency.
Carter said Monday, "Do you want to bet?"
Previously, with powerful lawmakers in its corner like the late Sen. Verne Smith, Carter said, Greenville would have been carefully consulted on such a plan.
"We've been ignored, to be honest with you," he said.
To the extent that legislators can't officially influence such projects, Carter said, amending legislation would have been filed "very fast" if such a closure were near Charleston.
At issue is a $60.9 million project to replace asphalt with 10-inch concrete from where I-385 splits with I-26 all the way to Gray Court.
DOT officials say they can complete the project in eight months, beginning Jan. 4, moving southbound traffic from one side of the road to the other while detouring northbound vehicles through a splintering of alternate routes.
Confusion over the project and the prospect of rural roads swamped with detour traffic drew dozens of people to a DOT meeting in Laurens on Tuesday night that many people thought would include a public hearing but that was designed instead to inform them of the pending upheaval.
Bill Wheeler, a truck driver who lives on S.C. 14 in Barksdale, said he expects a "deluge" of traffic heading north on the two-lane road in front of his porch, and that he may end up abandoning his normal route into Greenville in favor of something more obscure.
That ripple effect on secondary roads has businesses and local governments calculating untold added costs.
Wheeler's wife, Lynn, said she is worried that the stress of commuters taking unfamiliar routes to work will snarl traffic and cause accidents on S.C. 14, which is lined with schools and buses in the morning hours.
A DOT official told her that the eight-month inconvenience was preferable to three years of partial interstate closures. However, she said, "Nobody's really had a say in it."
Clinton resident Pam Barry said she carpools to Greenville's International Center for Automotive Research every day, but that she has no intention of taking DOT's official detour route down I-85 from Spartanburg to Greenville.
She is intrigued by a detour route through Woodruff, but she said the added fuel and time it will take to detour defeats the purpose of carpooling - saving money.
Former DOT commissioner Tee Hooper said the agency made a mistake by failing to robustly vet the construction approach in Greenville and beyond, though he said he supports the closure.
State Rep. Wendy Nanney said the commission initially approved the project two years ago, and she would have thought DOT officials could have sat down with legislators at the time and informed them of the plans.
Instead, Nanney said, she and others from Greenville first heard about the closure in The News.
Atkins said limiting the impact of the Legislature on road decisions was considered a virtue of reform legislation a few years ago. Now, he said, lawmakers are sounding a different note.
McConnell has said the agency failed to consider hidden costs such as convenience and economic impact. Carter said lawmakers should be consulted because of their public position.
Perry said he began the public notification process earlier this year, and that in addition to a Laurens public meeting in May he had notified Laurens legislators, two from the southern part of Greenville County, the Wal-Mart distribution facility, Fountain Inn EMS and BMW Manufacturing.
None of them registered strong opposition, he said.
However, May's public session and Tuesday's meeting weren't duplicated in Greenville, and Perry has said the agency should have more aggressively gathered local input.
Hooper, who was on the commission for some of the I-385 discussion, said the agency carefully considered "soft" costs such as economic impact, and that after viewing a detailed analysis he believes closing the interstate is the best option.
Atkins agreed, saying the commission revisited the project once the controversy arose, holding extra meetings, weighing the inconvenience and other factors and ultimately agreeing with DOT staffers that an interstate closure was "overwhelmingly a money saver."
He said he recently drove the official detour route, which directs drivers to Spartanburg on I-26, then to Greenville on I-85, and that he found it added 17 minutes to a trip to downtown Greenville.
If the DOT had decided to do the construction with single-lane closures, Atkins said, the slower traffic and occasional backups and accidents might have slowed the trip by at least as much.
He also said the highway commission intends to use the money saved by closing the road - potentially $30 million to $40 million - to pay for I-385 widening closer to Greenville, although he said it's not a sure thing because the commission hasn't acted yet.
At the Laurens YMCA on Tuesday, Lynn Wheeler wanted to know why the agency couldn't divide half of the interstate into a two-way highway while work was being completed on the other side.
Perry said that was the agency's first consideration, but that it would have had to erect concrete barriers between the two lanes, leaving little space for traffic and even less for emergency access on a highway with hardly any shoulder space as it is.
An hour after Tuesday's hearing began, a crowd of dozens had dwindled to a handful. About 70 names were listed on a sign-in sheet.
Meanwhile, on a normal night on S.C. 14, a 12-car chain traveled through speed limits of 55 and 35 miles per hour, then slowed to nearly a halt as cars turned into driveways.
Whatever safety problems might arise on a two-lane I-385, Wheeler said, the same ones will apply here, when strangers start pressing through.