Hundreds of people rose to their feet Wednesday night in silent protest of plans to finish the final leg of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands.
It was a peaceful demonstration but one that succinctly painted a picture of the depth of opposition to the project.
Passions ran high as people took to the podium during a public hearing at James Island Charter High School to express their opinions.
"This is the biggest waste of a half-billion of tax dollars that I've ever seen. We have to put a stop to this project. It's going to destroy Johns Island and James Island," said Thomas Legare of Johns Island.
More than 400 people were on hand to learn more about plans for the $489 million roadway. It was double the turnout of Tuesday night's hearing at West Ashley High School and by far the largest crowd at a series of meetings held to gather public input on the state Department of Transportation plan for the roadway.
With the exception of a few people, the crowd stood as one when speaker Amy Fabri of James Island urged them to leave their seats to show officials they didn't want what they were seeing on maps and charts that explained what was planned.
James Island Town Councilwoman Robin Welch said she had contacted the DOT to find out if the more than 2,000 public comments received so far for the project were counted as votes for or against it. Welch said she had yet to receive a reply to her question.
"The vast majority of people are opposed to 526," Welch said. She urged people to contact their elected officials directly to let them know how they feel about the highway cutting across the islands.
Laura McKenzie said she owns homes on both Johns and James islands. The project concerns her because of possible stormwater runoff pollution from the bridges and debris from cars and trucks falling into the marsh. "I can't help but believe that's a huge impact on our wetlands," she said.
The I-526 project is intended to improve safety and traffic flow to and from West Ashley, Johns Island and James Island. The favored alternative for the project unveiled last month in a draft environmental impact statement was developed in response to public support for a four-lane parkway with a 45 mph speed limit and bike and pedestrian lanes, the DOT said.
Twenty-two homes and four businesses would have to be relocated if the plan moves forward. The preferred alternative of the I-526 project is nine miles long, including five miles of bridges. It would require filling 17 acres of wetlands, of which 3 acres are salt marsh considered critical to the marine ecosystem.
In addition to two Stono River bridges, the project would have a Maybank Highway overpass and two connecting links to River Road. It brushes the northern edge of James Island County Park.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management must sign off on the project. The State Infrastructure Bank provided $99 million for the early phase of the project. David Kinard, the DOT project manager, said they are working to secure the rest of the funds, but there is still a projected $69 million shortfall on the project.
A final environmental impact statement for the I-526 project will be issued next spring with a record of decision on which version of last leg of the highway will be built. The no-build alternative did not make the final cut in the draft EIS.