I-526 proposal draws fire at public hearing

Consultant Stu Healy (pointing) explains Tuesday how the Mark Clark Expressway would connect West Ashley and Johns and James islands, during a public hearing on the expansion.

Brad Nettles

There are surely people who like the new plan for completing Interstate 526, a plan the state had selected from more than three dozen alternatives, but supporters of the concept were scarce Tuesday at the first of five public hearings.

Among those who offered public comments in the Burke High School auditorium, most were opposed to the S.C. Department of Transportation's "recommended preferred alternative" for I-526, but the opponents fell into two camps with very different agendas.

One group does not want I-526, the Mark Clark Expressway, extended from West Ashley to Johns Island and James Island. They decried the plan as a terrible waste of money that would harm the environment, force people from their homes and do little to improve transportation.

"In this recession, this is not how I want a half-billion of my taxpayer dollars spent," said Randall Goldman,

in a comment echoed by several speakers.

The other people opposed to the new plan, which calls for a ground-level parkway with a 45-mph speed limit, traffic lights and connecting roads, are in favor of completing the Mark Clark, but want it to be a high-speed elevated expressway, as was called for in previous plans since the 1970s.

"Make it an actual interstate," said Marianne Heins of Johns Island. "I've never been on one yet with a red light."

Heins is also among those whose homes would suffer under the current plan. Where previous plans called for the Mark Clark to connect to Maybank Highway on Johns Island, the recommended plan calls instead for two new roads connecting to River Road, one of which would be right across from Heins' two-year-old house on Jessy Elizabeth Road.

"It's horrendous," she said.

The plan would require "relocating" 22 residences, which in most cases would mean the state would buy them and demolish them. Those in the proposed path of the highway, like Heins, find themselves in a limbo of sorts, unable to sell their properties with such a plan pending, but also unable to sell to the state, because the plan isn't final.

The current time frame calls for a final decision sometime next spring, and that's when the DOT would start working on acquiring the right of way.

Dave Kinard, the project manager, said the recommended plan was developed after multiple public hearings in 2008 and 2009, and could be further refined in response to public comments during this round of public hearings. About 200 people turned out for the first one Tuesday.

"A lot of what we've done so far has been driven by public input," he said.

But there's still the issue of paying for the project. At an estimated $489 million, the selected plan was the least expensive of those evaluated, Kinard said. The State Infrastructure Bank has $99 million on hand for the project and has pledged to provide $321 million more. Assuming the $321 million is made available, that would leave a $69 million funding gap.

"I don't think I'll ever live to see it," state Transportation Secretary Buck Limehouse said of the highway completion in June 2009.

Supporters hope federal funding will play a role, but so far there is none set aside for the project.

The Coastal Conservation League and other opponents say that for much less money, significant improvements could be made to existing roads that would have a greater impact on traffic. That position was repeated by a number of speakers Tuesday.

The towns of Folly Beach and James Island previously took positions opposing the project, while Charleston County has pushed for the expressway's completion, and the city of Charleston greatly influenced the current design, which includes a pedestrian and bike path.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com.