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Council authorizes ‘road diet’ grant application

Posted: March 27, 2014 5:54 p.m.
Updated: March 28, 2014 5:00 a.m.

On a split, 3-2, vote, Camden City Council passed a resolution authorizing the submission of an application for a federal grant to help cover the costs of a proposed “road diet” for a portion of Broad Street.

The project proposes to reduce Broad street from two lanes in each direction to one lane in each direction between DeKalb and York streets and includes other improvements. The road diet will only begin once a separate project to establish an enforceable truck route around Camden’s downtown is completed. That project is set to begin a year from now and last until Fall 2017; the Broad Street road diet may not be completed until as late as 2019.

The application is for federal funds from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program. There is no guarantee the federal government will award the grant. Even if the grant is awarded, it may not cover the entire anticipated $5 million cost of the project. In 2010, the city received a $456,000 TIGER II planning grant to pay for all pre-construction work on the project.

Councilman Walter Long spoke first, saying that while he has supported the project, he doesn’t actually like the term “road diet.”

“I think it sets a negative connotation with the project -- ‘diet’ is just a bad connotation for streets and things,” he said. “To me … it is a more of a pedestrian and traffic enhancement to our downtown area. Having the trucks not coming through our downtown is going to be the key component of this.”

Long said those who have had really negative concerns are worried that reducing to only one lane in each direction will back up traffic at DeKalb Street and at York Street. He said many people refer to the city of Lexington as an example, and acknowledged that city is trying to undo a road diet-type project from years ago. However, he said that was not an apples-to-apples comparison since Lexington has three times Camden’s population.

“SCDOT (the S.C. Department of Transportation) has given us information that this is actually going to improve our traffic flow having those designated turn lanes. When you have the turn system we have right now at Broad and DeKalb, it’s pathetic,” Long said.

He said downtown has not continued not flourish. Long also said he has received a lot of positive feedback about the project, but only two emails from people saying the city should not move forward.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t other people out there that don’t think we should do it, but the overwhelming response I’ve received from the public is that this is a good idea for Camden. For me, personally, it’s something we need to do it. It is a risk,” he said. “This is just our support of the project. That, once the truck route is completed, and when the funds become available through federal money, that the project should move forward.

“I’m optimistic that we will get funding on this project. My ultimate goal is that our downtown and Camden will prosper. I’ve not seen our city prosper in the last 20 to 30 years. I think we have to do everything we can do to change that and this is a big component of that.”

Councilman X. Willard Polk, however, painted a very different picture as he indicated he would not vote for the resolution.

“The last time that council and the public were given some semblance of a detailed update on the Broad Street  or truck route road projects was in June 2013,” Polk said, reading from prepared notes. “Now, without any further update, council is being asked to vote upon a resolution that will authorize the application for a grant requesting federal funds … in an amount sufficient to complete these two projects. This application is due now, in April.”

Polk said the estimated costs, in 2013 dollars, totals $5.5 million. He also argued that no plan has been detailed of how to reroute traffic during the Broad Street project. He also took issue with how long the combined construction time could be for both the road diet and truck route projects.

“With an expected construction period of 18 months of Broad Street, combined with the truck routes estimated construction of 30 months, the city of Camden, its merchants and residents can reasonably be expected to have their lives disrupted by major construction activity for the better part of the next four to five years, 2015 to 2019,” Polk said. “Where will this council and administration be during that time? Has this council and administration included plans to alleviate the anticipated hardships to merchants, residents, etc.? How drastic will be the effects on residential neighborhoods?”

While he appeared to champion the idea of removing what he said was up to 170 heavy trucks per day from Broad Street, Polk worried about the possible negative impact on lighter commercial trucks

“Food delivery, fuel trucks, service trucks, construction vehicles, emergency, boat, recreational, equine, etc. --those vehicles appear to account for the majority of the daily truck traffic from York Street to DeKalb Street,” he said.

Polk also wondered about enforcing the truck route and whether or not the city would accommodate what he called “through-town suppliers” to the Dusty Bend area. He also wondered if truck owners could be successfully persuaded to use the new truck route.

Despite the projected benefits, Polk said he was upset that the TIGER II grant only allowed those funds to plan for the proposed lane reduction on Broad Street.

“Therefore, city council was not afforded discretion as to how to achieve similar goals, including beautification, at a much lesser cost and disruption of the community,” Polk said. “Furthermore, this application boxed the city into accepting the federal money with the threat of having to repay the grant if the plans were not implemented within a specified period of time --- not a very wise business decision.”

In a sort of reversal of Long’s comments, Polk noted that the city’s engineering firm has provided examples of similar projects in Greenville and Greenwood, but said those are not apples-to-apples comparisons, either. Furthermore, he said that in addition to Lexington, Florence and Sumter are also reversing course on previous road diet-style projects.

Polk also said that new businesses have moved into Camden, others plan to do so, and existing businesses have upgraded their buildings, all without the road diet.

“The central question should be asked, ‘Do we need this thing now?’ he said.

He suggested delaying any commitment to the road diet until the city can analyze the effects and benefits of the truck route once it is completed.

“Once the city commits to the Federal Treasury, this action will be irrevocable,” Polk declared.
How many times does this city have to tinker with Broad Street until we get it right? Within the past 35 to 40 years there have been numerous Broad Street projects from changing angle parking to parallel parking and widening the travel lanes; uprooting and planting trees; widening and repaving sidewalks; undergrounding electric lines and installing decorative lights; changing intersections, etc.”

The most significant project, he said, was completed in the late 1990s, using almost $1 million for a major streetscape project.

“Now that project is in jeopardy at the waste of almost $1 million,” he claimed.

Given what he said were the “uncertainties” of truck route project’s outcome and the question of whether or not the city has an “absolute need” for the road diet, Polk said he could not vote for the resolution. He also asked for a resolution to pursue the county’s congressional delegation to help mediate with the federal government to pursue alternatives to what he considered “the severity” of the road diet.

In his remarks, Camden Mayor Tony Scully acknowledged that the city must apply for the grant by April 28.

“As I understand it, if we do not apply for the funding now, we will, in so many words, go to the back of the line, and future funding for these improvements will be that much more difficult,” Scully said.

He then said he wanted to clarify some misperceptions about the project. First, he said, the truck “bypass” will not be a traffic bypass around downtown, but a designated route for the big trucks.

“This arrangement will inconvenience many outstanding trucking companies; but the majority of citizens and council felt it was important to get the big trucks off Broad to help the downtown merchants and to serve the shopping areas,” he said.

Scully then went through the various components of the road diet plan. He also said that the proposed section of Broad Street will have to be torn up at some point, regardless of the road diet project.

“In terms of roadwork … at some point the city will have no choice but to address water and electrical lines and sewer pipes under Broad Street,” Scully said. “This essential infrastructure work will be a major part of road construction. In other words, whether we have a road diet or not, there will have to be construction on Broad Street.”

Scully claimed another misconception is that Broad Street will be narrowed with widened sidewalks.

“I’ve been assured that’s not correct information. Except for some landscaping areas on South Broad, Broad Street will keep the same width from curb to curb,” he said.

Scully acknowledged that many store owners are concerned about the proposed medians because they are afraid they might block traffic and complicate parking.

“If it turns out that the medians are not a good idea, this can be changed,” he said. “There are risks to any municipal project. There are possible mistakes. We have no certainties. With this project, we have carefully weighed your comments and information. Comments in favor have been running about four to one. Comments in favor line up with planning recommendations that have proved successful in other cities, cities that have revitalized their downtowns and increased value to downtown real estate. In all these decisions, we weigh the pros and cons.”

Councilwoman Laurie Parks painted a different picture of the response to the project from her constituents than the mayor did.

“I surveyed as many people as I could, those that owned businesses in the affected area as well as residents,” Parks said. “I have almost twice as many against this project as for it. The business owners are concerned about the amount of time they will be impacted and (whether) the end result will be worth it.”

She said she and Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford recently returned from a trip to Washington, D.C. Parks said federal officials were asked often about funds for highway and transportation projects.

“We were repeatedly told that funding for new projects was almost non-existent. They can’t fund or maintain what they currently have. I think that the timing is all wrong. I believe, as well as many others, that we need to complete the truck route, see how that (impacts) the downtown area, and then re-visit the possibility of this project,” Parks said.

She also expressed concern that if Camden commits to the project and federal funds do not become available, much of the cost could be placed on local governments.

Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford spoke very briefly, noting that DPZ had included the road diet as a way of enhancing downtown Camden into a walkable community. She, too, noted Arnett Muldrow had also recommending “calming” the traffic on Broad Street.

“I see this grant as a means to secure the funding to do just that with the main objective to revitalize and maintain a vital downtown that we know it can be,” Drakeford said. “But, we must believe that downtown is one of the important factors in making a big impact on our city. We must also believe that downtown can make a positive impact on the economic growth in Kershaw County. We must again believe that downtown is the heart and soul of our community.”

Drakeford also said that she believes a healthy downtown will promote family values and that the grant will provide the opportunity to perform the road diet project without as much impact on city taxpayers.

In other business during the meeting, the city’s water treatment plant received a 2013 Facility Excellence Award and council proclaimed April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

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