Let’s cut to the chase, folks, the gridlock and traffic in Charleston County is unbearable and unacceptable. When it used to take less than 20 minutes to get from North Charleston to downtown or from West Ashley to Mount Pleasant, we could’ve never imagined that traffic would become the disaster it is today. Nowadays, commuting from Summerville or North Charleston to downtown weekday mornings can take up to two hours if an accident occurs. Johns Island residents spend more time bumper-to-bumper than ever. Folly Road is a parking lot — even in the winter. Our county has grown exponentially and our roadways show that daily and can not handle it anymore. And it’s up to us to change this.
Sure, you can blame it on too much building and sprawl due to the influx of new residents and companies. You can blame it on the town and county councils who have voted to let the construction happen — but let’s remember a time when after the Navy Base left, Charleston County was a ghost town. Back then, the farthest retail location on Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant was the Walmart at Chuck Dawley. The Glenn McConnell Parkway was just acres of trees. Certain areas of North Charleston were dilapidated and uninhabitable. Folly Road was still a rural road with old homes dotting the way to Folly Beach. The idea of I-526 was still up in air. At the time, people were depressed with no hopes of Charleston County being fruitful, and jobs were scarce.
There was a time when Charleston County residents were leaving the area for jobs and a better quality of life. Many of our new residents didn’t see what it was like then, and honestly, as a native, it was depressing for all of us. Fast forward to today — July 2016 — there are new companies choosing our area to flourish daily. Companies that are providing jobs, health care, benefits and security ... some with only 20 employees, some with 2,000 plus. Yes, our road infrastructure is a mess, but this infrastructure was designed in a time when planners assumed we would just be another sleepy town. They could’ve never known what our community would become. The accolades we would win. The area that people would want to visit more than any others.
In 2004, Charleston County residents voted YES on the half penny transportation tax. And it worked. However, many of the routes we complain about now are the ones the tax helped build or expand more than a decade ago. Many of our new residents didn’t see what it was like then. But let’s face it, Charleston County is not the county it was in 2004 and we are all better for it. This is why we have asked our community for their opinions on the new half penny sales tax increase referendum council has proposed. We have spent the summer hosting community meetings to hear from you — our residents — about the referendum. What’s good; what’s bad; what needs to be done?
Ironically, several of those who were here during the downtrodden time of Charleston County oppose any type of tax increase. Which makes sense — we want things to be the way they used to be. However, think about your kids, your grandkids and your grandkids’ kids. Charleston County will not be the county it used to be ever again. We have to make a change to our roadways now.
But what about the state helping us, you ask? When the South Carolina Legislature passed the “roads bill” a few months ago, they voted to spend less than $25 million in Charleston County, but yet sent over a billion dollars to Malfunction Junction in Columbia. A 24-mile, $144 million proposed highway expansion in Florence County that the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank wanted to widen to five lanes was such a waste that Coastal Conservation League activist Dana Beach said, “It’s safe to take a nap in the middle of the road,” which they did ... for more than a minute before a car came. When have you ever been able to lie in the road on any major artery roadway for a minute here? In the end, those in our state government don’t think our area roadways are worth funding.
Charleston County is completely on its own — no one will help us heal this congestion and gridlock we experience every day. We have to take this into our own hands. And I’m not talking about the proposed I-526 extension — I’m talking about current roadways slated for expansion and widening to alleviate the congestion. (You can find them online at the county’s website.)
Our county is the home to the Best City in the World, a thriving port, No. 1 retail and tourist destination in the state and, in all reality, South Carolina’s economic engine. It’s time for us as Charleston County residents to work together to improve our region’s mobility and livability and realize that even though our overwhelming contribution to our state may not be recognized by government officials out of town, it is recognized by our residents — the residents that slowly idle in Charleston County traffic daily while drivers zoom through the Malfunction Junction. I ask you to seriously investigate the half penny sales tax referendum that will focus on road expansion, rapid transit, green belts and an overall better quality of life.
Elliott Summey is chairman of Charleston County Council.