Here we go again with efforts to extend 526
There is a sense of deja vu in the ongoing efforts to advance two controversial road projects on Johns Island in the continuing face of public opposition there. It doesn’t bode well for finding real transportation solutions on the island.
On Monday, the Charleston Area Transportation Study (CHATS) Committee increased the estimated cost of extending I-526 to $556 million, in preparation for its consideration by the state highway commission.
CHATS also agreed to seek proposals for a cross-island highway — currently described as a “greenway” — that would expedite access to the resort islands of Kiawah and Seabrook islands. Previous proposals would have connected that road with the interstate loop.
But residents of Johns Island have repeatedly spoken out against the cross-island highway over the last 16 years. And the I-526 extension was rejected by County Council in 2011 after public hearings held by the state Department of Transportation found little support for — and much opposition to — the plan.
Council only backed off when the State Infrastructure Bank, the financing agent for the project, threatened to make the county repay $11 million spent on project planning and right of way. The SIB refused to consider alternatives to the interstate loop.
No question, there are powerful supporters for both roads. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley insists that I-526 should be completed, contending that there is a “silent majority” in support of it.
Kiawah Island Mayor Steve Orban said he hopes “there’s a magic bullet out there” to get the greenway built.
CHATS Committee Chairman Elliott Summey, vice-chairman of County Council, backs both road projects. He described the $67 million hike in the estimated cost for I-526 as merely “a housekeeping issue.”
For sure, it represents a lot of gold dust for the DOT to sweep up.
The DOT can’t take care of basic road and bridge maintenance across the state and faces major financial challenges to get its list of priority projects under way. And I-526 is not on that list.
It might require something like a magic bullet just to overcome public opposition on Johns Island to the greenway. The highway was placed on the regional road priority list at the request of Kiawah Island, even though it lies wholly outside of the town’s municipal borders.
The sense of deja vu on these projects doesn’t apply solely to the repeated efforts to get them built, but to the repeated failures that have accompanied both. Local transportation officials would do better to direct their attention to less controversial methods to improve traffic movement in the Johns Island area.
County Councilman Herb Sass, for example, urged improvements to the Main Road- U.S. 17 intersection that serves as one of the two entrances to the island.
That intersection is a persistent choke-point for traffic.
It was particularly gratifying to read the comments of Kiawah Island Town Councilman Greg Vanderwerker, who spoke in support of improving existing roads.
“They’re building more and more and not taking care of what we have,” he said. “It’s a vicious circle. We’ll have more and more, and none of it will work.”
Local and state officials need to stop fixating on these two controversial and costly projects.
Just because the State Infrastructure Bank was unwilling to consider other options for traffic relief doesn’t mean that local officials and the DOT have to follow that ill-considered lead.