Objections to I-526 expansion increasing

The line of government agencies opposed to building the Mark Clark Expressway across the islands is growing.

Plans for the $489 million Interstate 526 project over Johns and James islands are moving too quickly for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has recommended that a permit for the project be denied for now.

The S.C. Department of Transportation recently applied to the Army Corps of Engineers and state Ocean and Coastal Resource Management for permits to build the road.

EPA said in a Tuesday letter to the Corps that the application is premature because the SCDOT and Federal Highway Administration have not concluded how the project would impact the environment.

"We recommend that the permit for the project, as currently designed, be denied," the EPA said.

However, the Corps is not bound by the EPA recommendation and will make its own decision on the SCDOT and highway administration application for an expressway permit under the Clean Water Act, said Glenn Jeffries, director of corporate communications for the Army Corps Charleston District.

A final Environmental Impact Statement for the I-526 project will be issued next spring with a decision on which of six versions of the last leg of the highway will be built. The SCDOT has a "preferred alternative" that was the subject of recent public hearings on the islands. The no-build alternative did not make the final cut in the draft Environmental Impact Statement.

The EPA isn't alone in objecting to the project.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley in a letter dated Monday advocated a redesign of the expressway so that it would be a lower-speed parkway with four, narrower lanes that would be more in character with the islands. Riley also advocated more bike and pedestrian lanes. A scaled-down design for the project would leave a smaller footprint in the island marshes, the letter said.

Riley said in his letter to the SCDOT that his suggestions reflect a study by city staff. Among other things, it proposes a redesign of the project where it intersects with Folly Road and with Riverland Drive to make it more friendly to bikers and pedestrians. It also raises the issue of whether the marsh footprint for the project overpass of Maybank Highway could be lessened with a lower speed limit and smaller lanes. Suggestions also are made to scale back the design for how the project connects with River Road so it fits in better with the islands.

West Ashley neighborhoods are substantially affected by through-traffic going to Johns and James islands, Riley said. "Our concern is this may be the only opportunity the region has to address this," he said in an interview.

The state Department of Natural Resources expressed its concerns about the expressway in a Tuesday letter noting that areas affected provide valuable fish and wildlife habitat and are essential in maintaining water quality.

Hundreds of people opposed the project at recent public hearings on the draft Environmental Impact Statement, which included the SCDOT's preferred route for the project. Some of those same people had concerns Wednesday about the city proposal.

"Unfortunately, the city's proposed changes are window dressing on a project that has fundamental flaws, said Chris DeScherer, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston. "The project is way too costly in light of its meager transportation benefits and significant impacts to our marshes and islands."

James Island Public Service District Commissioner Rod Welch found fault with the city proposal, too. "It reminds me of someone rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They just miss the whole point. Just the noise, the air pollution, the traffic, there's nothing good here for James Island or Johns Island," Welch said.

David Kinard, SCDOT project manager, said he would not read the letters until after the comment period closes today.

The State Infrastructure Bank provided $99 million for the early phase of the interstate completion project at the request of Charleston County Council, which asked the Transportation Department to manage the design and construction.

The eight-mile-long expressway would include five miles of bridges, including two 80-foot-tall spans over the Stono River. Up to 30 acres of tidal wetlands and creeks on the islands are expected to be shaded from bridges built for the project, which could affect whether they survive, scientists have said. Up to 20 acres of salt marsh wetlands would be filled for road construction and later restored. About 17 acres of wetlands, including three acres of salt marsh, would be permanently destroyed by the construction, according to OCRM.

The project would connect Folly Road at the James Island connector with I-526 where it intersects U.S. Highway 17. As currently envisioned, right-of-way acquisition would begin in about a year.