South Congaree, SC – Several hundred concerned citizens met at Congaree and Springdale Elementary Schools last week at meetings arranged by SC State Senator Katrina Shealy to learn what, if any, progress is being made to repair Ramblin, Durham, and Wilton Roads. At each of these locations, privately-owned dams with state owned roads on them washed out during the floods that struck our state in October of 2105. This washout forced the DOT to close those roads indefinitely.
Some of the citizens in attendance at these meetings were angry that the repairs on these roads seemed to have stalled and no progress is being made to reopen them. These roads are important connectors that allow motorists direct access to neighborhoods and businesses in their respective areas. They also allow emergency services like fire and EMS to move quickly from Point A to Point B when they are needed.
Ramblin Road connects the center of South Congaree to Platt Springs Road. Detouring around the washed-out road has inconvenienced area’s residents and has at times slowed the response of emergency equipment that is dispatched to the north of South Congaree.
Likewise, Wilton Road connects Platt Springs and Wattling Road and is a major artery to many quiet neighborhoods in the city of West Columbia or the town of Springdale. It provides a significant shortcut for West Columbia’s and Lexington County’s fire equipment and law enforcement officers when they are needed in and around those communities.
Durham Pond has less traffic than the other two when it’s open. It is, however, still important to people who live in and commute from the Shablow neighborhood and from some of the older, traditionally bedroom areas of the town of Springdale.
Andy Leaphart, Chief Engineer of Operations for the SCDOT, spoke to the raucous crowd during each meeting and tried to explain why the roads have remained closed more than a year after the floods. Leaphart said that the state has had an easement atop the earthen dams for years. These easements allowed the DOT to maintain the roads, but the state never has owned the property under the dams. That ground under those road-beds that encompasses the dams is owned by private land owners. In several of the cases, the landowner is not clear and could not be definitively identified after an extensive title search. This has complicated the issue of the repairs.
According to Leaphart, state law prohibits the DOT from impounding water. This law is a major factor that impedes the state’s facilitating repairs of these and other roads that cross private dams in our state. Statewide, there are 22 other similar situations that the DOT is seeking solutions for.
Leaphart laid out three basic options for resolving the Ramblin and Wilton Road closures. Durham Pond’s situation is different from these two because the owner of the dam has been identified as that community’s homeowner’s association. That dam is currently being repaired at this association’s expense.
In the case of Ramblin and Wilton Roads, the DOT’s first option is to obtain an engineer’s certification that says that the dams are structurally sound as they are. If those certifications are received, the state could quickly repair the roads on the structurally sound dams and those roads would reopen to traffic.
A qualified consulting engineer has already been retained by the state to inspect the dams on Ramblin and Wilton. The remaining water in those impoundments is being lowered so that this engineer can perform his inspection. The results of that inspection are expected by the DOT sometime in the next few weeks.
The second option is for the property owners or vested parties to abandon the dams. At this point, the property would be transferred to the state of South Carolina.
If this is done, the DOT would install square, concrete box culverts under the roads. This would allow the streams that feed the ponds to free flow underneath the roads unimpeded. The ponds in those cases would remain dry and the roads could be repaired in several months.
The third, and the least attractive options for Ramblin and Wilton Roads, would be for the state to leave the road closed permanently. If that were the case, Leaphart said that the DOT would quickly install features that would make the detours around the dams permanent. These features would act to improve the safety of motorists who are detouring. This would include a new traffic signal at the intersection of Princeton Road and Edmund Highway just west of South Congaree.
A new traffic light could alleviate some of the increased dangers of accidents at that intersection that are being compounded by the increased traffic detouring Ramblin Road. Leaphart pointed out that although a traffic signal might improve safety in some ways, it often increases the amount of other types of accidents. He said that signals reduce the amount of tee or crossing accidents, but often increase the number of rear-end collisions at an intersection. This could certainly be the case at Princeton and Edmund Highways.
While the third option was being discussed by Leaphart, Representative Mac Toole of SC House District 88 made it clear that this option was off the table. He said if that option began to be seriously considered, he would file a bill to change the state laws so that the remaining roads that were washed out during the historic floods could be legally repaired by the DOT. “I would approach the leadership of the house and the Ways and Means committee to secure the necessary funding to make whatever changes we need to make sure that the roads are repaired and reopened,” Toole told the crowd. “Although Senator Shealy and I are but two votes in the legislature, I would hope we could get this passed through both houses.”
Toole, who lives north of the washed-out dam on Ramblin with his family, also showed frustration with the situation at times. “It’s time we fixed the damn dam,” Toole reiterated! This statement was met with enthusiastic applause from the gallery.
Lexington County Administrator Joe Mergo was in attendance during the Ramblin Road meeting and for the most part stood quietly in the back of the room listening. Mergo did speak for a few moments when the issue of emergency response times was addressed. “I live off Ramblin Road too,” Mergo told the crowd. “I can assure you that there is no issue that is of greater importance to your county council than public safety. We understand the dynamics of this problem and are doing everything we can to stay abreast of this issue to see that the detours are alleviated,” he continued.
Mergo said that the delay for equipment that responds from the South Congaree fire station to Ramblin Road was about 3 minutes. “It’s important to note that our EMS units rarely stay put in one spot due to the call volume that we experience. The detour on Ramblin Road is not usually an issue because we very seldom have an EMS unit at Station 5 (South Congaree) waiting on a call.”
Mergo acknowledged the short delay in emergency response in the case of Ramblin Road. He was quick to point out, however, that in the instances when requests for emergency service had come in during the period that the road was out, there was no indication that the delays had a significant impact on the outcome of the handling of those emergencies. He also made it clear that the county had no real recourse, as they own no part or parcel of the dams under the roads or the roadbeds and easements to maintain the road in question.
In the Springdale meeting, West Columbia’s Police Chief Dennis Tyndall and fire chief Wyatt Coleman were in attendance in the audience. They both asked some general questions regarding response times for their personnel, but in general, both took a wait and see approach; especially after hearing Mac Toole’s edict that the third option, closing the roads permanently, was off the table.
By the end of both meetings, it was clear that no matter how angry the residents in that area affected by the detours become, DOT officials would not be hurried into repairing the roads if the dams underneath them aren’t structurally sound. Although it might appear that only the roads are damaged in these cases, the DOT does not employee engineers that are qualified to make that determination regarding dams.
Leaphart also made it abundantly clear that the DOT would not arbitrarily seize land whose owner is unclear. Likewise, the DOT is not prepared to ignore state laws governing the impoundment of water by repairing the dams themselves if that’s what’s necessary. “We have to be good stewards of the state’s money,” Leaphart told the crowd. “We wouldn’t be those good stewards if we made decisions based on emotion that might land us in court as defendants in litigation.”
As citizens filed in and out of both meetings, they were reminded that they should sign in and include an e-mail address so that they could receive e-mails regarding the progress of both repair projects. Leaphart also reminded the assembled that they could get updates quickly through the DOT’s social media feeds. “As soon as we have new information to share regarding these projects, we will share that with you,” he said.
You can find the SCDOT on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SCDOT/?fref=ts&rf=111944255491200 and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SCDOTPress. As always, you can follow updates to these projects and other in The Ledger at www.swlexledger.com