A simpler, less costly solution to the Interstate 526 extension would reduce traffic congestion west of the Ashley and on James and Johns islands while increasing the value of surrounding property, according to two environmental groups.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League advocate improvements to existing streets and roads over construction of a final nine-mile leg of I-526 from the James Island connector across James and Johns islands to I-526 in West Ashley.

"It's the best idea. It's not rocket science," said Christopher DeScherer, senior attorney for the SELC.

The proposal, called "A New Way to Work," was among 39 alternatives considered to solve traffic woes for the islands and West Ashley.

"We did analyze the proposal. It did not meet the purpose and need of the project," said David Kinard, I-526 project manager for the S.C. Department of Transportation.

The tab for "A New Way to Work" would be about half of building the $489 million Mark Clark Expressway extension, said Josh Martin, land use program director for the Coastal Conservation League.

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 parkway with a 45 mph speed limit and bike and pedestrian lanes. It would require 22 homes and four businesses to be moved, which is the least number of relocations of the seven alternatives that made the final cut.

Kinard said a final environmental impact statement for the I-526 project will be issued next spring with a record of decision on which version of the last leg of the highway will be built. At that time, right-of-way acquisition will begin, he said.

Public hearings on the project are planned for Tuesday at West Ashley High School, Wednesday at James Island Charter High School and Thursday at St. John's High School. The meetings begin at 5 p.m.

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 three acres are salt marsh considered critical to the marine ecosystem.

Early on in the review process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration urged the S.C. DOT and the Federal Highway Administration to consider improvements to major arteries such as Savannah Highway as an alternative to building the final leg of the expressway.

"The purpose of the project should not be based on expanding the roadway simply because it was in the original design developed decades ago," wrote Miles M. Croom, assistant regional administrator of NOAA's Habitat Conservation Division.

In his October 2008 letter to the Federal Highway Administration, Croom said: "Alternatives should include improvements to existing roads and other functional alternatives (e.g., mass transit) to improve efficiency of travel."

In a June 4, 2009, letter to the FHA, Croom said that the "New Way To Work" alternative was discarded prematurely. It would improve traffic flow and avoid destruction of salt marsh and forested wetlands, he said.

The state Department of Natural Resources and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control also expressed concern.

"Construction on new alignment represents the most environmentally damaging alternative in meeting project objectives and should be considered only after all other options are exhausted. Alternatives such as improvements to existing roads and functional alternatives to improve travel efficiency should be given full consideration," said Susan Davis, DNR Coastal Environmental Coordinator, in an October 2008 letter to the S.C. DOT.

The letters are included in the draft environmental impact statement for the project released last month.

DeScherer and Martin said "A New Way To Work" involves building on the street network for better, safer traffic flow in a way that will increase the economic value of transportation arteries such as Savannah Highway.

They said the review process for the I-526 project alternatives was flawed. With appropriate consideration of the options, "A New Way To Work" would be picked as the best alternative under the National Environmental Policy Act, DeScherer said. "It's the best idea and it would rise to the top," he said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711 or pfindlay@postandcourier.com