Mount Pleasant celebrates Highway 17 completion
MOUNT PLEASANT — Town officials joined other dignitaries Monday to celebrate the completion of an $80 million construction project that widened the town’s busiest highway, between the Ravenel Bridge and Interstate 526.
“We could not be more positive about this job,” Mayor Billy Swails told a crowd of about 100 people gathered at the old Miller Cadillac site near Mathis Ferry Road.
But just because Johnnie Dodds Boulevard is now six lanes instead of four — and less likely to become congested in the near future — don’t expect the town’s attitudes toward growth to change much.
Swails said the completion of one of the town’s biggest infrastructure projects — and the relief and time saving that it’s expected to bring to those in town — is a point of civic pride more than a decade in the making, but not a game changer as far as making residents here more eager to see growth.
“Nobody wants anybody to move next door to them,” he said, adding that such sentiment is unrealistic. “You’re always going to be concerned about growth.”
Councilwoman Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, who heads the town’s planning committee, said the highway’s widening will make for smooth travel but not necessarily a smooth path for developers.
“A lot of folks moved here because of the wide-open space, but if somebody wants to develop their property, you have to allow it,” she said. “The key is to manage the growth.”
While the highway now has three working lanes in each direction, construction work is expected to continue on the frontage roads and other nearby sections for at least another month.
And residents driving along U.S. Highway 17 should continue to notice faster travel times as more traffic lights are brought into synch — and as a new six-lane section fully opens north of the Isle of Palms Connector, a separate road project.
Councilman Chris O’Neal said the wider highway should allow Town Council to consider more infill development up through the town’s northern end.
“That’s something we haven’t really talked about,” he said. “Politically, I think that’s good for everyone.”
The project marked a compromise between forces, including the late Mayor Harry Hallman, who wanted to see elevated overpasses along all major U.S. 17 intersections leading to Charleston and those wanting Johnnie Dodds remade as more of an at-grade urban boulevard.
Only one overpass was built — where the highway intersects Bowman Road.
Swails said he favored the boulevard idea, and that was one reason he got involved in the town’s politics again.
“Now it’s not a bypass,” he said. “It’s an artery for the town.”
Town Transportation Director Brad Morrison said Johnnie Dodds’ congestion has been an issue since before he was hired for this job 13 years ago.
Widening it to six lanes should bring years of relief, but the exact length will be determined by the town’s progress on connecting road projects, the town’s future growth and the type of that growth.
If the wider highway attracts more employers, that could shorten commutes, even as the town grows.
O’Neal said he hopes the widening will help the town lure more law firms, accounting firms, technology firms and other employers.
Charleston County Councilman Herb Sass said the project — paid for largely with the county’s half-cent sales tax approved in 2004 — was tweaked at the request of businesses and residents.
Sass, Swails and others thanked the businesses and residents who put up with the scores of orange cones and barrels that lined the highway for more than a year.
Town Councilman Chris Nickels said widening Johnnie Dodds is part of the solution of managing the town’s growth, but not all of it.
“I don’t want to get caught up in my own enthusiasm or convince myself this is a solution,” he said. “I’m trying to tamp down my own enthusiasm that we’ve done it. I’m really in favor of giving our town a breather.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.