JOHNS ISLAND — A plan to complete Interstate 526 has fueled the push for the Sea Island Greenway, a possible toll road that would bisect Johns Island.
Charleston County Council Thursday approved a controversial plan to build I-526 across Johns and James islands. On Friday, Ronald Mitchum, executive director of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, said the regional planning group in January will release a request for proposals for alternative ways to pay for a limited-access highway across Johns Island to the resort islands of Kiawah and Seabrook.
Members of the group’s transportation committee have said such proposals likely will include a toll road, because no money is available to pay for it.
That committee approved the plan to seek proposals in June, Mitchum said, but the council decided to wait until a decision had been made on I-526 before moving forward.
The roadway is not ranked as a priority among state road projects, and it falls 58th out of 71 projects on the Council of Governments’s regional priority list.
Seabrook Island Mayor Bill Holtz said the Sea Island Greenway is an important road because it would alleviate traffic congestion and promote safety. “But with the approval of I-526, it’s urgent,” he said.
The interstate would pull traffic from U.S. Highway 17 and Main Road to River Road on Johns Island, Holtz said. River Road won’t be able to handle all the traffic I-526 would bring, making the need for the new road even greater, he said.
It also would provide a safer route for travel, especially at night, Holtz said. “On River Road, the trees are just too close to the road,” he said of the massive and picturesque live oak trees that line portions of it.
Many Johns Island residents see the road proposal in a different light.
“Kiawah wants an interstate right to their front door,” said resident Rich Thomas. He calls the road “the golfway” because it would provide faster access to Kiawah golf courses.
Thomas, a vocal opponent of I-526 and the greenway, said Johns Island residents certainly will organize to fight another road being built through their communities. “It’s an all-out assault on Johns Island,” he said. “It’s extremely distressing.”
An exact path for the road hasn’t been determined, but in all proposals from Charleston County and other groups, it would begin at I-526, near River Road on the northern end of Johns Island, then pass through the center of the island between River and Bohicket roads.
Mark Essig, who owns a 46-acre horse farm on Plowground Road, said he is opposed to the road, which would run through, or nearby, his property.
He wouldn’t be upset over a personal loss if he thought building the road would serve most people, he said. But that’s not the case with the greenway, Essig said.
“It’s the haves manipulating the facts and spoon-feeding that to others like they are children,” he said. “It’s the used-car-salesman pitch.”
Charles Lipuma, the recently elected mayor of Kiawah Island, said 80 percent of residents there support I-526 and the new road. Town Council plans on Jan. 8 to vote on a resolution of support for both projects, he said. He expects it to pass 5-0. Town Council will pass a copy of the resolution to Charleston County Council, he said.
It remains unclear who would build the Sea Island Greenway, and what Charleston County’s role in it would be.
Elliott Summey, who is vice chairman of Charleston County Council and chairman of the Council of Governments’ transportation committee, said he has been so consumed with I-526 that “the Greenway hasn’t even been on my radar.”
He’s going to wait until proposals come in before thinking more about it. “It’s just not worth wasting brain matter until we get proposals,” he said.
Thomas Legare, whose family has been farming on Johns Island since the 1700s, said he has been thinking about it. He was so certain that if the county approved the plan to build I-526, a plan to build the Greenway soon would follow that he placed a bet on it. “Somebody owes me a big bottle of Seagram’s VO,” he said.
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.