BY DANA BEACH
In a year marked by an exceptional lack of political leadership, December was a particularly dismal month. On the 8th, The Post and Courier reported that South Carolina needs $30 billion to stem the decline of its decaying road system.
More than 2,000 bridges are unsafe, structurally deficient or weight limited and thousands of miles of roads need to be repaired and resurfaced.
The DOT report concludes, “If the decline is allowed to continue, congestion and load restrictions will result in irreparable damage to the state’s economy.”
Five days later — (the ink on the newspaper article was barely dry) — Charleston County Council voted 5-4 to proceed with the construction of I-526 to Johns Island, depriving the region of at least $556 million that could have been used address the maintenance backlog or to add capacity to critical transportation arteries like I-26.
Then, just one day later — the Berkeley/Charleston/Dorchester Council of Governments (COG) approved a plan to seek funding for yet another road through the middle of rural Johns Island. As Johns Island farmer Thomas Legare stated, “The body wasn’t even cold.”
The Johns Island Parkway has been in the works for years. It simply went underground after the demise of the City of Charleston’s 2008 request for federal stimulus funds to build it.
According to COG director Ron Mitchum, the Parkway will now be resurrected because of the council’s action on I-526. Seabrook Mayor Bill Holtz explained that “with the approval of I-526, it’s urgent.” Holtz fears that the interstate would pull traffic from U.S. 17 and Main Road to River Road on Johns Island, and that River Road won’t be able to handle it.
This is, of course, exactly the reason James Island activist Robin Welch and others urged the county to reject I-526. The urgency, according to Holtz, is also because “on River Road, the trees are just too close to the road.”
A casual observer could only stand in dumbfounded amazement, contemplating the question, “Why were these decisions made this way?”
Some background on Johns Island may help bring the picture into focus. Two major developers, the Beach Company and Kiawah Development Partners, own 2,000 acres near the intersection of River and Bohicket Roads — the termination point for the Parkway, the other end of which would connect to I-526.
The COG, whose membership includes Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, the mayors of Kiawah and Seabrook, and three of the five Charleston County Council members who voted for I-526 (but none of the four who opposed it), is the sponsor of the Parkway.
Mayor Riley has been a relentless advocate for both the extension of I-526 and the construction of the Parkway.
These two roads would consume well over $600 million in scarce public funds. But the siphoning of tax dollars to support development on Johns Island does not stop here.
The Beach Company’s newest project, Kiawah River Plantation, lies at the intersection of River Road (where the trees are too close to the road) and Bohicket Road (afflicted with a similar tree infestation).
The Beach Company does not want to pay for the roads to its development, including I-526 and the Parkway. Fine. Most developers do not pay for external roads.
But neither does the Beach Company want to pay for its internal roads, or its sewer system, or its parks. So it has applied for a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District designation that will allow Charleston County taxpayers to reimburse it $85 million for those costs, from tax revenues that would otherwise go to the school district, the fire district and the county.
All told, this amounts to almost three quarters of a billion dollars for urban infrastructure on an island the county and Johns Island residents have agreed should remain rural.
There is a pattern here. A few powerful politicians, arguing lofty goals like safety and economic development, are accomplishing exactly the opposite, diverting enormous sums of taxpayer dollars to favor development at the expense of critical county and state infrastructure needs.
First we get an interstate to Johns Island, then an expressway across it, then millions in subsidies for private infrastructure, all with callous disregard for the environment and the communities in their paths.
But here is the good news. When the I-526 motion was made, four County Council members — Dickie Schweers, Colleen Condon, Joe Qualey and Henry Darby — all bucked the pressure from road supporters and voted for fiscal sanity.
It will take only one more leader to shift the balance in Charleston County away from the exploitation of people, land and taxpayer dollars, and toward a future that will sustain the beauty and culture of Johns Island.
There is no reason Charleston County can’t gain that one brave vote in 2013.
Dana Beach is executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.