Johns Island road plan advances

Long-awaited plans to do something about the traffic on Johns Island got moving again Thursday.

Charleston County Council agreed to add a lane to Maybank Highway near the Stono River bridge and study a new road across Johns Island to Kiawah and Seabrook islands.

The vote was essentially a compromise deal, kept under wraps until the county staff presented it at the council meeting.

Several council members complained about not having any information ahead of time, and two refused to vote for the plan in protest.

Under the compromise, those who had opposed making Maybank Highway a four-lane road will get the alternative improvements they wanted, while those who have been pushing for an expressway to Kiawah will get a chance for a new road, although it won't be a highway.

"The only way to increase capacity is to build another road," said Councilman Paul Thurmond, the leading proponent of a new road across Johns Island. "This is an attempt to find a middle ground between road and no road."

County officials are calling the proposed road the Sea Islands Greenway, rather than the Cross-Island Parkway.

"It is envisioned to be a rural roadway, buffered on both sides and protected from development," said Kurt Taylor, the county's assistant administrator for transportation. He compared the proposed road to the Colonial Parkway in Virginia.

Whose Johns Island land would the road go through? That's an unanswered question, but one the county will start to address with a study of potential routes.

Generally, the road would run from the Betsy Kerrison Parkway to the vicinity of the intersection of Maybank and River roads.

There is a big hurdle standing in the way of those who support such a road being built, however: There's no local, state or federal money set aside to build it.

The county plans to seek proposals from private companies to design, build and fund the road project. That's how the state was able to get the Southern Connector toll road around Greenville constructed.

Officials stopped short of saying that a new road across Johns Island would have to be a toll road, but Taylor said, "Without some sort of user fee, it's hard to see how to pay for it."

The only thing that will happen right away is that the county will conduct some preliminary alignment and environmental studies. Kiawah is paying for the work by giving up, at least temporarily, $200,000 in county funds that the town would have used for street and sidewalk repairs.

For Maybank Highway, the county will now go ahead with the design work on a much-debated plan that calls for adding a third lane between River Road and the Stono River bridge to James Island in order to relieve traffic backups during the evening rush hour.

The plan also would add secondary roads to disperse traffic from Maybank Highway onto River Road and calls for adding center turn lanes on parts of Maybank between River and Main roads.

The key feature of the Maybank plan is the small section between River Road and the bridge, which has been dubbed "the pitchfork" because on paper is looks somewhat like a pitchfork, with the bridge as the handle and the proposed secondary roads forming the tines on either side of Maybank Highway.

Charleston officials pushed hard for the pitchfork idea, and against making Maybank four lanes. Mayor Joe Riley thanked County Council for moving ahead with the plan, and also indicated that he won't oppose a new road to Kiawah.

"I do believe an additional road is needed on Johns Island, south of Maybank," Riley said. "It would take pressure off of River and Bohicket (roads), which are dangerous, we understand."

County Council voted 5-2 to support the roads plan.

Councilman Dickie Schweers voted against the plan to protest the dearth of information available before the meeting, and Councilman Joe McKeown abstained for the same reason. Councilman Victor Rawl also opposed the deal after raising many questions about the concept of a cross-island road. Councilman Henry Darby was absent.

A final vote on the plan will be held when County Council meets Tuesday evening.

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