A key federal permit for the extension of S.C. 31 on the south end is expected to be issued as early as Friday after two years of delays, paving the way for work on the stalled project to finally start later this year.

The permit will allow for construction to start on extending S.C. 31 from its end at S.C. 544 to S.C. 707 and widening S.C. 707 to U.S. 17 Bypass near the Horry-Georgetown counties line.

“That’s good news if we can get it tomorrow,” Horry County spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier said Thursday. “This is what we’ve been waiting for.”

Once the federal permit is received, officials can move forward with putting out bid requests for the work. Construction should start on the widening of S.C. 707 in October and on the S.C. 31 extension in December, said Mike Barbee with the S.C. Department of Transportation.

The project, which would be complete in late 2016, should help reduce congestion on the south end and will give drivers a straight route from the start of S.C. 31 near Little River to U.S. 17 near the Horry-Georgetown counties line.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received the last needed piece for the permit, a water quality report from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, on Thursday afternoon, Corps spokeswoman Sara Corbett said.

“Now that we have it, we will [issue the permit] as soon as possible,” she said.

State transportation leaders and Rep. Tom Rice said the permit will be issued Friday. Rice said he’s met with Corps officials to help move the project through the process.

“It is time to get the shovels in the ground, get people back to work and improve our local infrastructure,” Rice said in an email.

Construction on the S.C. 31 extension was initially scheduled to start in summer 2011. It was delayed as transportation officials took a closer look at environmental impacts and because of glitches in the permit application. The Corps wanted one permit application for the S.C. 31 extension and the S.C. 707 widening because the projects are so intertwined; officials had initially submitted separate permit applications for each.

The S.C. 31 extension will cost about $215 million and is paid for through the State Infrastructure Bank, while the S.C. 707 widening will cost between $85 million and $95 million and was part of Horry County’s RIDE program.

Delays in those projects have led to delays in other needed road improvements in Horry County, including the widening of Glenns Bay Road and construction of International Drive at Carolina Forest. The projects have to start in priority order.

“It’s been kind of holding up those projects,” Bourcier said.

The S.C. 31 extension and S.C. 707 widening are crucial for traffic on the overburdened south end, officials say. S.C. 707 is handling more traffic than the two-lane section south from S.C. 544 was designed to handle, Barbee said..

The south end has been one of the fastest growing areas in the county, with many subdivisions popping up along S.C. 707 and adding to the traffic congestion, he said. The improvements aim to alleviate that congestion and better connect the south strand.

Knowing south-end drivers need the improvements now has made the delays even more frustrating, Barbee said.

“It’s been a long process,” he said. “It’s been extremely frustrating to both us and the county... knowing the critical need of the project. It’s just frustrating to have to go through the process.”

By: Dawn Bryant