Sea Island Greenway push far from over Regional council studies funding

A proposed route of the Sea Island Greenway.

The indefatigable Sea Island Greenway project again has reared its head.

Proponents for years have pushed for the road, which would bisect Johns Island and create a faster, and many say safer, route to the resort islands of Kiawah and Seabrook. Opposition to the road always has been strong among Johns Island residents, yet discussions on the project continue to make their way back onto the agendas of regional public bodies.

Most recently, the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments’ transportation committee in June voted to put out a request for proposals on alternative ways to finance the road, said Kathryn Basha, the group’s planning director. A draft of the document is complete and currently is undergoing a final, internal review, she said. Once the final version is complete, it will be posted on the group’s website and mailed to those on a list of industry professionals. Usually, those professionals have about 30 days to submit proposals, Basha said.

The project ranks 58th out of 71 projects on the regional transportation group’s priority list, Basha said. Projects are moved from that list to a transportation-improvement plan list when a source of money to pay for them has been secured, she said.

They do not necessarily move to the second list in priority list order, she said.

Bill Holtz, mayor of the Town of Seabrook Island, said he and other supporters think the road is necessary for safety reasons. Johns Island simply doesn’t have enough road capacity, he said.

And building the Greenway would be less intrusive to Johns Island, and less expensive, than widening either River or Bohicket roads.

But with no money available for the road, proposals could come in for a toll road, Holtz said. “We don’t want to go that way,” he said, “unless there is no other way.”

Town of Kiawah Island Mayor Steve Orban said he always has thought the road was important. He’s curious to see what the proposals will contain.

Johns Island resident Rich Thomas is a member of Concerned Citizens of the Sea Islands, a group opposed to the Greenway. “This thing has been floating around for decades,” he said. “And it’s pretty much driven by Kiawah developers.”

Charleston County Council has voted against the Greenway, he said, but proponents just keep pushing. “‘No’ doesn’t mean ‘no’ to them. They basically want their road.”

The road would promote development on Johns Island, Thomas said, and it wouldn’t do anything to improve safety on the existing roads. Most accidents now are caused by drunken drivers or people driving too fast, he said.

“It’s just sad and it’s disturbing. They won’t give up,” he said.

Charleston County Council vice chairman Elliott Summey, who also is chairman of the regional group’s transportation committee, said the process from receiving financing proposals to determining if and when the road could be built will be a long one. “In my mind, we need to move low and slow,” he said.

After the proposals are reviewed, Summey said, the transportation committee likely would have to talk to Charleston County Council or the state Department of Transportation, groups that could manage the project and build the road.

Basha said the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester of Governments could take on and manage road projects. But it couldn’t sell bonds to pay for them or condemn land. Without that authority, it would be difficult to complete a project, she said. And a project such as the Greenway likely eventually would belong to the state, so it would make more sense for the state Department of Transportation to also manage construction of such a project.

And Charleston County Council, so far, does not appear interested in building the road. The group voted against it in August 2010. And it listened to presentations from proponents and opponents this past summer. But it instead voted to allocate $2 million for improvements to existing Johns Island roads.

Megan Desrosiers, associate director for the Coastal Conservation League, another group opposed to the Greenway, said consideration of the project is “another instance of local government working against the will of the people.”

She also said her research indicates the Council of Governments has no authority to build roads. “The S.C. Code of Laws clearly state that Councils of Government have the authority to prepare studies and make recommendations regarding transportation projects. COGs do not have the authority to build roads.”

Charleston County Council woman Anna Johnson represents Johns Island, the area through which the new road would pass. She said she has heard both support and opposition from her constituents. She’s waiting until the proposals are in before she forms an opinion on the best way to proceed.

And she also thinks it’s important first to know whether the extension of Interstate 526 across James and Johns islands will be built. The Greenway likely would connect to I-526, she said. “The two projects are very connected.”

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