I-526 survey will cost $36,000

After spending millions and holding a dozen public meetings on the completion of the Mark Clark Expressway, the state Department of Transportation will spend another $36,000 on a survey to gauge public support of the long-stalled project.

DOT spokesman Peter Poore said the department is considering taking over from Charleston County the controversial project to extend Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands. But it first needs to be certain that money is available for the road, and that it has political and public support. A questionnaire sent to about 5,000 county residents late last week is part of the DOT’s effort to gauge public support, Poore said.

The survey will cost about $36,000 to develop, send and analyze, Poore said. It will be paid for with money available for the project, and should be completed by mid-September.

The most recent estimate to complete the project is $556 million, but only $420 million currently is available for it.

Charleston County now has control of the project to finish I-526, but it voted in January to turn it over to the DOT. The department has not agreed to take on the road, however, even though many local elected officials have pushed the issue in recent weeks. If the DOT refuses to take on the project, Charleston County could be on the hook for $11.6 million already spent on it.

On Monday, Poore said department officials couldn’t answer questions about the survey because a professor from the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research was not available. The institute is assisting the DOT with the survey, Poore said.

Institute director Robert Oldendick was available Tuesday. He said the questionnaire, which asked only whether people favored or opposed the extension of I-526, and their age, race and gender, was sent to a random sample of about 5,000 homes. Those homes were in six ZIP codes, areas on which the road would have the most impact, he said. The ZIP codes were 29407, 29412, 29414, 29439, 29455 and 29487.

The institute kept the questionnaire simple, Oldendick said, “to encourage a high response rate.” He hopes that about 1,000 people will complete and return it. Surveys must be returned by Aug. 21.

The institute will analyze the data and then present it the DOT, Oldendick said.

Supporters of the I-526 project say it is essential to relieve severe traffic congestion in the growing region, improve hurricane-evacuation routes and link local communities.

Opponents say the project will promote urban sprawl, and that other local road projects are more important to the area than I-526.

James Island resident Joseph Tierney said he didn’t receive a questionnaire, but he wishes he had. He supports the road and would love to weigh in on the discussion.

“There was supposed to be a complete (interstate) loop around the city, but there’s a small segment missing,” he said. The proposed project would complete that loop.

Johns Island resident Rich Thomas, who is opposed to the project, also didn’t receive one. But he has seen a copy of it, he said. The questionnaire, he said, contained “no useful information on which to make a judgement on the road,” such as cost, environmental and social impacts and the benefits of various alternatives. “Somebody committed professional malpractice,” Thomas said.

Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor, who supports the completion of I-526, said he didn’t know the DOT was planning to conduct a survey, but he thinks it’s a great idea. Opponents say the majority isn’t behind the project, Pryor said. But he thinks the majority wants it, and the survey will demonstrate that.

Many people didn’t like the DOT’s preferred alternative, know as Alternative G, Pryor said. That alternative was a low-speed parkway, and County Council unanimously voted against it. But the completion of the interstate is necessary, and the design can be modified, he said.

The survey likely will demonstrate that the majority of county residents support some kind of road, he said. “I’m not afraid to take that chance.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.

or on Twitter @dianeknich.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.