The road project envisioned almost a decade ago to improve traffic heading on and off Johns Island finally received some funding this week, but only enough to build half of it.
The project is nicknamed "the pitchfork plan" because it would add two new roads heading in opposite directions from Maybank Highway at the foot of the Stono River bridge, giving motorists more options to get to and from River Road (and creating a pitchfork-shaped grid).
The route heading right from the bridge is referred to as the northern pitchfork, while the one veering left is called the southern pitchfork. But at this point, they might never form a pitchfork at all.
On Tuesday, County Council approved spending $4.1 million to build the northern pitchfork after staff completed a traffic analysis last month. The southern pitchfork, which would cost about $7.5 million, hasn't been studied and funds for it haven't been identified — and council isn't working to move it forward.
When Councilman Teddie Pryor asked about the status of the southern route at the Finance Committee meeting last week, Chairman Vic Rawl said it's "completely up in the air as to whether we’re even going to look at it again."
The only explanation from Rawl and county staff is that there isn't any money for it.
"There is serious doubt as to whether or not competing projects are going to soak up whatever possible funding there may be for it," Rawl said Friday. "I can't explain any better than to say that any other project in Charleston County is in competition."
The cost to complete the northern leg will be paid for with $1.4 million from the 2004 half-cent sales tax fund and $2.7 million left in the Maybank Improvement Project’s $15 million budget. The rest has been earmarked or spent, primarily on resurfacing Maybank from River to Bohicket roads and adding bike and pedestrian lanes.
Right now, traffic piles up at the traffic light at River and Maybank, especially in the evening when many residents return to the island after work.
The gridlock has been bad for years, and it's only getting worse as the island's population continues to swell. The city and county, which share jurisdiction on the island, have permitted a combined 6,361 residential units in planned developments.
The county’s initial plan to improve the congestion was to widen Maybank Highway from two to four lanes between the Stono River to Bohicket Road. But after push-back from residents and conservationists who wanted to save the area's tree canopy, the county agreed to pursue the alternative pitchfork idea.
The concept originated in a traffic study commissioned by the Coastal Conservation League in 2008, which showed it would improve traffic flow in the area.
Rawl said the county has to do its own study to prove the southern portion would be worthwhile. The latest study completed recently by county staff included only the northern portion.
Jason Crowley, the communities and transportation program director for the nonprofit, said Friday that the traffic concept won't function nearly as well without both tines of the pitchfork.
"This is a case where leadership has every opportunity to do the right thing and approve the entire project at once," he said. "And here we are, doing this half step which will provide some relief, but it won’t do enough."
'Something else going on?'
Jimmy Kerr, whose family owns a large chunk of land along River Road near Maybank Highway, agreed eight years ago to donate a portion of his property for the southern pitchfork.
When the county failed to come up with a plan by May, he pulled his offer. Reached by phone Friday, Kerr said he'd still be willing to sell the land for the right of way.
The proposed road would serve future residents of a community he's planning to develop on about 30 acres of that property. But he said that's not why he supports it.
"The pitchfork is a good idea," he said. "If you have a wreck on Maybank Highway currently, everything is tied up. But with the pitchfork concept, it gives people choices to turn left, or right, or move around whatever blockage might be there."
He can't figure out why the project isn't a priority.
"You have to wonder, there's got to be something else going on that we don't know about that causes this impasse," he said.
Rawl denied that.
"There is not some sort of political opposition to the southern pitchfork," he said.
The only other project intended to bring some relief, the Interstate 526 extension, has also been delayed indefinitely.
The $720 million highway would create a new path from West Ashley, through Johns Island all the way to the James Island connector. It's been stalled since 2015 because estimated costs of constructing it have nearly doubled, setting off a series of disputes between Charleston County, the S.C. Department of Transportation, and the Infrastructure Bank about whether to raise funds to cover it or abandon the plan altogether.
Kerr was granted funds this week from the county's greenbelt program to place 48 acres of land on his property known as Three Friars in a conservation easement. As part of the deal, he agreed to sell about a half acre to the county if it's needed for the I-526 right of way.
At one point, the county thought the route of the southern pitchfork on Kerr's other property would conflict with the 526 path, but the pitchfork route was reconfigured to avoid that.
Kerr said the pitchfork should be the immediate priority because it's more attainable.
"I don’t want to argue whether 526 is a good idea or bad idea. It’s an idea whose time has not come because its funds have not come," he said. "We have got to get in place things that are doable today."