It only took one accident on Johns Island to paralyze much of Charleston in gridlock for nine hours this week.
And it only took a few minutes for the politics of Interstate 526 to get stalled in the mess.
A flatbed truck carrying heavy equipment snagged a cable line at the intersection of Maybank Highway and River Road around noon Monday, setting off a chain reaction that took out a couple of traffic lights and power poles.
Traffic came to a halt on Johns and James islands, across the peninsula, West Ashley and even into North Charleston. People couldn’t get home or pick up their kids at school. Some folks were stuck in traffic for two, four or even six hours.
That’s Los Angeles-league nuts — and completely ridiculous in a metro area of fewer than a million residents.
Opponents of 526 were on the defensive before crews could finish hanging a new traffic signal at Maybank and River because they knew what was coming: If we had 526, this wouldn’t have happened.
Which, sure enough, many people posted on social media, no doubt while sitting behind the wheel.
The Nix 526 sympathizers argued that if the county had already built those pitchfork roads to divert traffic off Maybank as soon as it reached Johns Island, this particular catastrophe could've been averted. And they’re right ... this time.
Those roads are needed short-term fixes. The city has secured the land and the county is awaiting permits to begin construction on the northern pitchfork. The other still needs funding.
But even with the pitchforks, what happens when the accident happens closer to the bridge at Maybank, or on Main Road? Answer: The same thing that happened this week.
That’s because the fundamental problem here is having only two routes into an area that’s home to more than 20,000 people. See: Mount Pleasant.
Anytime one route is shut down, it not only affects Johns, Wadmalaw, Kiawah and Seabrook islands, it messes up nearly everyone's day. People have to cross West Ashley and James Island to get to Johns Island, overloading nearly every road in the city.
That’s the thing 526 opponents don’t get — finishing the highway isn’t all about them or Johns Island. It’s mostly about relieving bottleneck traffic in West Ashley and on James Island.
“This (526) is a regional project,” says Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey. “Traffic is like water, it’s going to take the path of least resistance. More ingress and egress always makes things better.”
Inexplicably, the naysayers tried to blame this problem on the very people who are trying to solve it. On Facebook, they singled out Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, which makes absolutely no sense … until you realize it’s an election year.
Tecklenburg is a proponent of 526, the pitchfork roads off Maybank and intersection improvements on Johns Island. All of which would help because, common sense. You can't fix Charleston traffic with some sort of grid system.
“In a region where you have all these rivers and the harbor, there are critical choke points. When any one of them goes down, it’s a tsunami effect,” Tecklenburg says.
He’s absolutely right, as Monday demonstrated.
The opposition to 526 started with the best intentions. Folks didn’t want to see rural Johns Island turned into another suburb. It's a noble goal. Unfortunately, it’s too late for that.
Even if the city and county shut down all development from this point forward — and taxpayers didn’t grouse about paying the settlements from the resulting lawsuits — there still aren’t enough ways onto or off of Johns Island for the people who live there now.
That wouldn’t be the case, and finishing 526 wouldn't cost nearly as much as it’s going to, if some people hadn’t played politics with the road for the past decade. And they likely will delay it more with lawsuits in the coming years.
Remember that next time you're stuck in traffic.
So don’t blame the legislative delegation, Tecklenburg or Summey — who probably did more than any one person to revive 526 — for our traffic nightmares.
They aren't the problem here.