Long utility relocation delays aren’t unique to Aiken, Silver Bluff Road
In Aiken, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the lack of progress being made on the Silver Bluff Road Corridor Improvement Project, which will cost more than $5.7 million.
Why, people want to know, is it taking so long to widen and make other upgrades to a 1.5-mile stretch running from Indian Creek Trail to Richardsons Lake Road?
The relocation of utilities created the longest delay, which lasted approximately 19 months.
Eagle Construction Co., the contractor for the S.C. Department of Transportation, or SCDOT, did some preliminary work on the Silver Bluff site from late March until June in 2016.
Then the Newberry firm left so the City of Aiken, SCE&G, AT&T, Aiken Electric Cooperative and Atlantic Broadband could move their cables, pipes and other equipment without interference.
But that turned out to be a very slow process, and it wasn’t until early January of this year that Eagle Construction finally was able to return to Silver Bluff.
A lengthy wait for utility relocation is something that isn’t unique to Aiken.
In North Augusta, the removal of utilities to make way for another SCDOT project in the Lecompte Avenue/Old Edgefield Road area has created a holdup for more than 20 months.
And similar delays are common in many other places in South Carolina as well.
“We have issues all over the state,” said Mike Barbee, director of rights of way for SCDOT.
For S.C. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, figuring out how to prevent such setbacks is a priority.
“I know my constituents are past being frustrated with the delays on these projects, and I am, too,” he said. “I have countless hours of time that I have spent to assist SCDOT in moving along utility relocation and (dealing with) other issues multiple times going back to 2016 on these projects. I’m committed to finding solutions to the problem so that similar delays on projects like these do not repeat themselves again and again in the future.”
Taking action legislatively
Earlier this year, Young proposed attaching a proviso to South Carolina’s 2018-2019 fiscal year budget that would have prevented SCDOT from using “any authorized funds to provide encroachment permits to a utility when relocation of lines in the state right of way by that utility is delaying a transportation project.”
In the end, “we didn’t include it in the budget, but it did generate discussion,” Young said.
He also mentioned another recent legislative effort by other lawmakers that was designed primarily to provide money to the smaller nonprofit utility companies to pay for water and sewer line relocations under certain circumstances.
In return for the funds, those companies would agree to allow a project’s contractor to control the relocation process.
While the bill never came to a vote in the House this year, Young believes it had merit and is hopeful it can be revisited in the future.
In addition, Young said he has discussed with SCDOT officials an initiative by Santee Cooper to make its utility relocation coordination strategies more successful.
“I asked SCDOT in late April to give me feedback on whether or not those methods are working,” Young said. “I was told verbally that they had had good success with it.”
Ultimately, Young believes a statewide solution is needed. He said it probably would have “multiple parts” because “I don’t think one size would fit all.”
It is a concept that Young has talked to SCDOT leaders about in the past, and he said he found them to be receptive.
This past January, Young sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall, asking for an update on any steps SCDOT had taken to make a statewide solution a reality.
In a reply to Young in March, a member of Hall’s staff wrote on her behalf that SCDOT “initiated a task force in 2015 to review, along with our industry partners, utility coordination procedures on highway projects. In 2016, SCODT was also awarded a federal grant to further study utility relocation and coordination best practices. Through efforts of this task force and implementation of the grant, SCDOT has updated our Utility Accommodation Policies and developed training and tools for utility coordination. This training has been provided to all SCDOT staff and our industry partners.”
In addition, the letter stated, SCDOT has “initiated a change in the project development process wherein the utility providers will be invited to early project scoping meetings to provide any information they may have regarding the location of their facilities. This will assist SCDOT with the design of the highway projects with regard to utility impacts. Through this process, every effort will be made to avoid utilities if possible, then minimize or mitigate unavoidable impacts.”
According to the letter, SCDOT also “will conduct periodic constructability reviews during the design phase to identify areas of conflict, designate locations for relocated utilities and address other individual concerns of the relocating utilities. Also, SCDOT will request schedules from utility providers to be incorporated into the overall project schedule.”
Reasons for holdups
There are a “multitude of factors” that can cause the relocation of utilities to take longer than expected, Barbee said.
He described some as “acts of God,” such as hurricanes, ice storms and floods. In their wakes, assisting South Carolina residents and those in other states often takes precedence over the moving utilities, Barbee explained.
He also said securing easements so utilities can be relocated sometimes takes a lot of time.
Another problem involves goals that differ on occasion.
“SCDOT and utility companies don’t always have the same missions,” Barbee said. “Some of our utility providers are obviously for-profit companies, and they answer to shareholders. They have their own projects to do, and sometimes it just doesn’t make good business sense to place SCDOT priorities ahead of their own. If SCDOT was a business, we probably would take the same stance.”
A utility company’s perspective
In an email to the Aiken Standard, an SCE&G public affairs representative provided an official company response to a question about the difficulties faced during the relocation of utilities.
“Typical challenges include weather, timing, location and (the availability of) necessary equipment as well as coordination of state agency and contractor schedules,” the representative wrote. “Crews safely work on and complete projects as they are scheduled. However, it is important to remember that depending on the project, several companies and agencies may be involved in the scheduling process. Essentially, crews from each company or agency are trying to do the work at the same time in the same place, which requires more coordination with scheduling and even greater communication.”
Asked for comments about the Silver Bluff project specifically, the company’s representative wrote: “Even with the challenges common to these types of projects, SCE&G successfully completed its portion of the work. SCE&G electric was the first utility to complete the relocation process on this project, and SCE&G gas completed its portion within the project schedule.”