Its time to get moving on regions infrastructure projects
In the fall of 2011, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce formed an Infrastructure Vision Task Force to develop an infrastructure priorities platform for the Chamberís Business Advocacy efforts. The purpose of the task force was to prioritize the short- and long-term infrastructure needs of the Charleston region. The task force recently released its first report including 16 infrastructure projects as regional priorities to support the continued growth, and development and quality of life of our tri-county region. Employers in the region know how critical transportation infrastructure is for not only enabling their workforce to commute to and from work each day but also the critical role of transportation and infrastructure in getting goods and services to market. The Charleston region has critical transportation needs today and unless we work to find a solution to address them, the issues will only worsen over time.
Our region is not the same place it was a year ago. Boeingís 787 Final Assembly operation, Clemsonís Wind Turbine testing facility, and recent rankings as the number one visitor destination in the country are just three examples of how our region has been propelled from a mid-sized Southern community to an international business location. The anticipated opening of the expanded Panama Canal in 2014 holds enormous potential for the expansion of our port facilities in what is arguably the best deep water port on the east coast of the United States.
Building adequate dual-access rail connections, and an improved highway interface, along with needed channel deepening, challenges the potential for realizing these possible gains to the region and to the state.
The regionís existing infrastructure is simply inadequate to handle the current needs of the area, not to mention the anticipated growth. The region must be prepared to invest in new infrastructure if it is to continue to be the vibrant community we treasure due in no small part to its location, human resources and natural environment. It is no longer a choice of investing in one road or another -- we must find a way to address the infrastructure needs throughout our region. That means we must be creative and innovative in finding funding solutions to address all the needs.
The completion of I-526 (Mark Clark Expressway) is just one of the priority infrastructure needs for our community. We view the completion as just that -- the completion of a regional road begun decades ago. The existing 19.26 mile stretch in Charleston opened in 1992 and since its inception, there have been plans for the road to connect from Hwy. 17 North in Mount Pleasant to the James Island Connector. This is a crucial piece of needed regional infrastructure that will help to address safety, accessibility of transportation and economic development.
A well-built and sufficient infrastructure system allows products to be delivered, services accessed and employees to come and go to work. The completion of I-526 is a piece of the transportation puzzle that we must solve if we want our community to continue to be a great place to live, work and play.
The completion of the Mark Clark Expressway does not just impact Johns and James Islands, this project impacts the entire region. If our regionís economic development efforts are to succeed, we are going to need to address critical infrastructure needs across our entire region.
Some argue that not completing I-526 will protect Johns Island from future development. The fact is that just building the homes that have already been approved for the area will result in 28,000 housing units -- a six-fold increase from the current population. Imagine the traffic congestion then compared to now if we donít add needed infrastructure.
The purpose of the road is to take pressure off of the traffic using the Savannah Highway/Wesley Road/Folly Road corridor and the environmental impact statement model studies show that it will successfully perform this function. Even the James Island Connector and Lockwood Drive will have less traffic after I-526 is completed. That translates into savings of time for commuters, saving gasoline and enhancing quality of life. Modern, up-to-date infrastructure must be maintained for the region to effectively compete in the global marketplace. Without the ability to effectively move goods and services to customers, businesses cannot compete.
It is time our region takes a step forward and acts now to address the infrastructure needs facing us. Completion of I-526 is just one of 16 priority projects identified. The goal for the Chamber is to work with local, state and federal elected officials in securing the approval and funding for moving these projects forward. We need to come up with the funding and strategies to build sustainable infrastructure solutions to address the needs that exist today and to effectively manage the growth we know is on its way.
Mitchell Bohannon, P.E., is president and CEO of Thomas & Hutton. Stuart Whiteside is vice president and co-founder of SeamonWhiteside + Associates. Both are engineering firms. They chair the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerceís Innovation Vision Task Force.