The latest symbol of the Charleston area's growing economy — a new exit along Interstate 26 at the Volvo Cars manufacturing campus — is being touted as a catalyst for economic development that will also preserve the rural lifestyle of nearby residents.
The exit at mile marker 189 — which opens at 6 a.m. Friday — will provide direct access to roughly 1,300 acres of land for new industries offering thousands of jobs at Camp Hall Commerce Park, state-owned utility Santee Cooper's fledgling industrial hub.
It will also redirect thousands of cars and trucks headed daily to the Volvo Cars plant away from the current two-lane access roads that wind through the tiny Pringletown community, a shift that the automaker says is important from a logistical and neighbor relations aspect.
"I travel this road every day, and every time I think about all this traffic and what a relief (this exit) will be" for nearby residents, said Helena Bergstrom-Pilo, Volvo's vice president for purchasing and research.
Robby Robbins, chairman of the state Department of Transportation Commission, said during a ribbon cutting event for the new exit on Thursday that the agency is happy to help those residents with traffic relief.
At the same time, he and others said they hope the interchange and the economic growth it spurs will reverse some of the increasingly congested traffic headed east toward Charleston.
"We hope to have people coming out here to work instead of everybody getting on I-26 and going in the opposite direction," Robbins said.
Johnny Cribb, Berkeley County's supervisor, said he noticed traffic along I-26 "was all backed up" toward Charleston as he drove to Thursday's event, but "it was smooth sailing coming this way."
Cribb said the traffic jam he saw was most likely people who live in western Berkeley County but travel to Charleston for jobs. He thinks Camp Hall, Volvo and other industries will give those people a shorter commute.
"It's really important for this region for folks to have, not just any job, but really good jobs to come to," Cribb said.
Mark Bonsall, the new CEO of Santee Cooper, said the utility is committed to seeing Camp Hall succeed even as the electric company restructures and cuts costs in the wake of the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project.
"Expanding economic development for the state is part of Santee Cooper’s mission, and we take that job very seriously," he said.
The roughly $44 million interchange, which took about two years to build, was promised — and paid for — by the state as an incentive to get Volvo Cars to locate its only U.S. manufacturing site in Berkeley County. The automaker started building S60 sedans a year ago at the $1.1 billion plant and plans to add production of a new XC90 SUV by 2021, expanding its workforce to 4,000 employees.
The Volvo exit is the second of three new interchanges either completed or under construction along I-26 in the Charleston area. The Nexton Parkway interchange opened last year in Summerville and an exit linking the highway to a new Port of Charleston container terminal is set to open in 2021. Another interchange is planned near U.S. Highway 78 north of the Ashley Phosphate Road exit.
"It's absolutely an indicator of the booming economy that we have in this particular region of the state," Christy Hall, the state transportation secretary, said of the new highway exits.
Among the recent area projects helping to spur the interchanges, apart from Volvo, are the groundbreaking of a Mercedes-Benz Vans manufacturing campus, expansion of Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner plant, improvements at the Port of Charleston and new warehouse and distribution centers locating along the North Charleston and western I-26 corridors.
"There is a high bar to cross in order to qualify for getting a new interchange access to the interstate," Hall said. "The way this area is growing and booming, the needs are there."