I-526 hearing has few in favor, hundreds against

Derek Wade, who stood with numerous other opponents of the proposed final section of Interstate 526, gives a good-natured shrug to a small group of supporters of the project sitting in front of him at St. John's High School on Johns Island on Thursday nig

Johns Island -- The proposed $489 million four-lane parkway over Johns and James islands should be scrapped and the money spent instead on improvements to U.S. Highway 17, Interstate 26 and Calhoun Street, opponents argued Thursday night.

At the final of five public hearings on the project, more than 300 people stood when asked if they opposed it, which was almost everybody in the audience at the St. John's High School auditorium.

Three people spoke in favor of the parkway at the beginning of the hearing. They cited improved hurricane evacuation, better traffic flow, potential economic development and easier access to hospitals as some reasons to support it.

"We need a plan folks. We can't just say 'No, no, no,' " said Bill Holtz.

A stream of speakers followed who criticized the project for reasons ranging from destruction of the character of the islands to wasting tax money for a project that will reduce estimated travel times by only two minutes.

"I am completely and utterly opposed to this project in any form," said Paul Cantrell of James Island. Cantrell said it took him about 20 minutes to drive from downtown Charleston to the high school on Johns Island, which he said was reasonable.

"We should build nothing and fix the roads we have," he said.

The eight-mile parkway would begin at Folly Road and the James Island Connector and run across James and Johns islands. Five miles of the highway would be bridges, including two 80-foot-tall spans over the Stono River. It would end at the intersection of U.S. 17 and the Interstate 526.

Along the way, it would intersect with scenic Riverland Drive, brush up against the northern boundary of James Island County Park, fill 17 acres of wetlands and require the relocation of 22 homes and four businesses. There would be stoplights at Riverland Drive and at each of two new connectors to River Road.

Some opponents argued that mass transit was a better way to spend the money. "For $500 million we should be able to build light rail all the way to Columbia," said Henry Rivers of Johns Island.

James Island Public Service District Commissioner Rod Welch noted that the town of James Island, the city of Folly Beach and the PSD have passed resolutions in opposition to the parkway. During the five public hearings, at least two-thirds of the speakers were against it, he said.

"If this is a democratic process, this road is not going to be built. The people have spoken over and over," Welch said.

He said the $489 million would be better spent on widening Interstate 26 to Interstate 95, which would improve hurricane evacuation.

David Kinard, project manager for the state Department of Transportation, said Charleston County applied to the State Infrastructure Bank for funds to build the parkway and received $99 million with a commitment for up to $420 million. When the $99 million was approved, the county asked DOT to manage the project, he said.

Where the remaining $69 million will be obtained has not been determined, he said.

The DOT considered 39 possibilities, such as improving existing roadways, better mass transit and a tunnel, before settling on the current design and route for a parkway with a 45 mph speed limit, a landscaped median and sidewalk for bikers and pedestrians, he said.

The DOT considered 1,850 public comments when it picked the cross-island parkway as the best alternative in a draft environmental impact statement released in July. The five public hearings were held to gather more comments that will become part of a final environmental impact statement, which will include the DOT's final decision for the project.

The parkway requires approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Office of Coastal Resource Management.