Leaders support overpass rather than ‘superstreet’ in West Ashley

File/Staff Interstate 526 now ends at Savannah Highway in West Ashley. Many state and local leaders have been pushing for years to extend the road across Johns and James islands.

Local leaders say traffic congestion in parts of West Ashley and on Johns Island is approaching a crisis point, but completing two road projects could prevent gridlock.

The Charleston County Legislative Delegation’s Roads And Bridges Committee met Tuesday evening to discuss plans for improving the intersection of U.S. Highway 17 and Main Road, at the gateway to Johns Island. And state Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican and chairman of the committee, said he met earlier in the day with some state and county officials, hoping to help move forward the plan to complete Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands.

County leaders and the state Department of Transportation have said the U.S. 17 and Main Road intersection must be improved because traffic snarls there every day at rush hour as cars head for Johns Island, lining up on Highway 17, waiting to make a left turn onto Main Road. It also has a high rate of crashes, according to the DOT.

But many residents have complained about the superstreet design, which the DOT proposed in 2013. Instead, they want a much more costly overpass.

“I think it’s needed,” Limehouse said of the overpass. “It’s 10 times better than the superstreet.”

DOT project manager Keith Riddle said a superstreet keeps traffic flowing more freely on a major thoroughfare by reducing the effect of left turns and crossings from a side street. Under the design, which would cost about $3.5 million to build, traffic from Main Road won’t be able to turn left or cross U.S. 17. Instead, cars must first turn right onto U.S. 17, move into the left lane, then make a U-turn. People often are skeptical because they have to make a right to make a left, he has said.

Deputy County Administrator Jim Armstrong said he is going to recommend to County Council Thursday that it instead approve a $60 million to $65 million project, which includes building the overpass, widening Main Road from U.S. 17 to Maybank Highway and raising Main Road between U.S. 17 and the Limehouse Bridge to prevent future flooding.

Armstrong said the county could use $1.5 million set aside for the superstreet for preliminary work on the overpass plan, which could take six to eight years to complete. It then would have to explore funding sources for the project.

The Roads and Bridges Committee voted in favor of asking the delegation to send a letter of support for the county’s plan to the DOT.

State Sen. Paul Thurmond, who supports the completion of I-526, said he had concerns that opponents of that project were pushing for the overpass to take the money from I-526, so that project couldn’t be completed. I-526 proponents say the road will improve the flow of traffic in West Ashley and on Johns and James islands, but opponents say it will promote development, which in turn will make traffic even worse.

Limehouse said he met Tuesday afternoon with former Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor and a few other council members, and some members of the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board about I-526. The bank board, which is funding the project, wants the county to agree to cover the cost of overruns and legal fees, but so far, County Council has been reluctant to put county taxpayers at risk for those costs.

Natalie Olson, a program director and staff attorney for the Coastal Conservation League, which is opposed to completing I-526, said, the intersection and I-526 are two separate projects. And the intersection improvements are a priority, she said. “We have to start getting our priorities done.”

Reach Diane Knich at (843)937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.