Widening concerns about road: Slim progress made in negotiating plan for Harbor View

Two students cross Harbor View Road to board the bus early in the morning as traffic builds behind the vehicle. Morning rush-hour congestion is exacerbated by school traffic, some residents say.

More than a year and a half ago, a circuit judge urged the town of James Island and Charleston County authorities to get together and negotiate their differences over an $18 million proposed Harbor View Road improvement project.

Several discussion sessions have taken place, as recently as last month, but according to both sides, nothing of substance has changed regarding the controversial project.

"Nothing significant" has been changed, according to Jim Armstrong, director of transportation development for Charleston County transportation sales tax programs.

RoadWise, the county's agency for managing a voter-approved half-cent sales tax for road projects, said the "changes are impossible," regarding alterations the town wants, James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey said.

Woolsey said the town is asking for a scaled-back project that would use traffic signals instead of major changes for intersections to ease traffic. The town strongly opposes a proposed center lane for passing that would run the entire length of the road project from North Shore Drive to Mikell Drive, he said. That new lane should be intermittent, Woolsey contends.

Armstrong said planners for the project are acquiring the needed rights of way for the project and planning to advertise for bids in about 30 days. A town lawsuit, filed in August 2009, has not resulted in any impediment to the plan, he added.

"We've not been told to stop any work," Armstrong said.

Trent Kernodle, an attorney for the town, said that while Circuit Judge Roger Young denied the town's request for a preliminary injunction to stop the project until the lawsuit could be heard, RoadWise is pursuing a risky course.

"They are going forward at their own peril because the lawsuit is still out there, and we expect to win," Kernodle said.

He says RoadWise is bound by law to respect the town's desires for changes in plans, and that for each request the town makes, RoadWise claims state highway officials set the rules.

Armstrong said RoadWise has no choice but to adhere to federal and state road project standards for the project. "This is a state road, not a town road," Armstrong said. That's a fact that forces RoadWise to design within certain parameters, he insisted.

In response to years of reported traffic congestion, Charleston County Council in 2007 approved what was then a $15 million Harbor View Road project to be funded mainly by half-cent sales tax funds. But as details of the plan were unveiled, opposition grew, mainly on claims the project went beyond the scope of what area residents wanted.

Following many public forums at which opposition was expressed, then-James Island Mayor Mary Clark asked RoadWise to scale back plans. Some changes were made, including dropping a proposed traffic circle at Fort Johnson Road. But in August 2009, Clark announced the town would sue to stop the project. Woolsey, mayor since last August, has continued the suit.

Many residents of the Harbor View Road area continue to voice opposition to the RoadWise plan.

"We don't want it to become Harbor View Highway," said Garrett Milliken of Fort Sumter Drive, which intersects Harbor View Road. He said that even if the proposed changes ease congestion on Harbor View, morning rush-hour traffic will "bottleneck" and come to a halt at the Julian Buxton Bridge. There are no plans to widen the two-lane bridge, planners have said.

Milliken said he fears widening the bridge would be a logical next step for transportation planners. "A four-lane highway is where we are headed," he laments.

Woolsey said the town and RoadWise could not reach agreements before the lawsuit was filed, and court-ordered arbitration has likewise gained nothing for the town.

He said the town has asked RoadWise to document that DOT opposes the changes the town asked for. RoadWise agreed to do that but as of this writing the town hasn't been shown any such documents, he said.

What happens next is unknown. RoadWise is committed to moving ahead with the project, while the town and its legal staff are mulling options for preventing the work from beginning.

Woolsey believes County Council could override RoadWise, but the town doesn't see there is enough support on council to do that. If RoadWise begins work, it may find itself under court orders to undo it later, both Woolsey and Kernodle said.

Details of the road plan can be seen at www.ccroadwise.org/harbor_view_road.html.