Confusing and maddening discussions on whether the Mark Clark Expressway should be extended across Johns and James islands are taking place across the Charleston area, making the completion of the road one of the most divisive issues in recent memory.
Verbal battles are brewing among both elected officials and local residents. And many of those skirmishes are happening through dueling Facebook groups, whose memberships have grown since the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank earlier this month approved the final piece of funding for the $558 million project.
The battles likely are so contentious because discussions on Interstate 526 touch only the surface of bigger issues, including:
The road is the first of three projects currently being pushed that many think could open the door to unbridled development on Johns Island.
I-526 takes most of a pot of state road money for years to come for a project that’s not ranked a high priority.
The recent infusion of cash the project received represents, to some, the worst of “good ol’ boy” South Carolina politics.
Johns Island development
Robin Welch, coordinator of Nix 526, a grass-roots group opposed to the completion of I-526, said many members think the road is part of a larger plan being pushed by developers and some politicians to promote development on Johns Island.
That plan includes the proposed Sea Island Greenway, a possible toll road that would bisect Johns Island, creating a faster route to the resort islands of Kiawah and Seabrook. It also includes the county creating a special tax district to help the Beach Co. pay for improvements to the 2,000-acre Kiawah River Plantation on the southern end of Johns Island.
Welch, a James Island resident, said she is concerned that the road would bring more traffic to James Island, making the roads there less safe. She also is concerned about its impact on the popular James Island County Park.
Nix 526 now has nearly 3,000 members on Facebook, and another 300 on a traditional mailing list, she said.
Bev Jenkins is the spokesman for Charlestonians for 526, a group that supports the completion of the road and has about 650 members on Facebook.
Jenkins lives in West Ashley near Savannah Highway, where I-526 currently ends. He doesn’t buy the argument that the road shouldn’t be built because it would spur development. “Development is best controlled by zoning, not roads,” he said.
And development on Johns Island is inevitable. Subdivisions are already planned and permitted. The only decision left is whether to pack all of those newcomers onto already crowded roads, or to build a new road, he said.
His group is focused only on I-526, he said, and takes no official position on the Sea Island Greenway or Kiawah River Plantation.
He thinks most of the resistance to I-526 is “Johns Island centric.” Many people who live there are thinking only of their own desires, not the overall good of the Charleston area, he said.
People always fear change, he said. His grandparents fought the building of the James Island Connector, he said. “Now it’s part of the scenery.”
While his group would prefer a traditional interstate instead of the proposed low-speed, parkway plan for I-526, members are still behind the project. “A line needs to be drawn in the sand and it needs to be built,” he said.
Eating the road money
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said for years he worked to reform the state Department of Transportation. Those reforms, which finally were approved in 2007, include prioritizing road projects, so those that are most needed are built first.
Charleston County Council voted in January to turn over the Mark Clark project to the DOT, but the department hasn’t yet said whether it will accept it.
Grooms said he thinks that if the DOT were to take it, the department would have to demonstrate that it’s a state priority. That’s not likely to happen because the state has many other more pressing road needs, he said.
“I’m not out there saying build it. I’m not out there saying don’t build it,” Grooms said. “I just want a fair system.”
But DOT spokesman Peter Poore said the department wouldn’t have to follow the same rules for I-526 as it would for other projects because all of the money comes from the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank. If the project were getting money from the DOT, or from federal funds that came through the DOT, it would have to be ranked as a state priority.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, said he also thinks the project would be exempt from the DOT’s ranking system.
Harrell has been pushing hard in recent months to ensure I-526 is completed, and he worked with the Infrastructure Bank’s board last week to secure the last piece of the funding.
He hopes the DOT agrees to manage the project, he said, because that’s its area of expertise. But if it doesn’t, another group could take over management of the project. For instance, he said, the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments transportation committee could take on the project and then hire a firm to design and build it. “The hard part,” Harrell said, “was getting the money in place.”
Good ol’ boy politics?
But the process by which Harrell and others got the money raised questions among project opponents.
The Infrastructure Bank board previously had agreed to borrow $420 million for the project by issuing bonds. It voted unanimously earlier this month to devote another $138 million to the project. That would come from money the bank would borrow after 2020.
Nancy Cave, north coast director for the Coastal Conservation League, attended the Infrastructure Bank board meeting where the additional money for I-526 was proposed. But money for the project wasn’t listed on the board’s agenda, and there was no public discussion on the additional money.
“It appeared to me that what was going to take place had been well planned, not in public view,” she said.
She thought it appeared that bank board members were more concerned with making deals to get projects in their part of the state funded than they were with considering the state’s most pressing road needs.
For instance, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, made the motion to fund I-526, but only after the board first agreed to fund $80 to $90 million of road projects in Florence County.
Funding for I-526 has been orchestrated, Cave said, “and its orchestration bypassed the taxpayer.”
Jenkins said he can’t see a good compromise on the road. “At the end of the day, you’re going to have unhappy people.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.