I-526 survey result: Finish it

Nearly three out of every four residents who responded to a survey on the completion of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands said they support the project, but that doesn’t mean opposition will die down anytime soon.

The survey, which was commissioned by the S.C. Department of Transportation and conducted by the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, found that 72 percent of those who responded were in favor of extending the Mark Clark Expressway along the proposed route, and about 28 percent were opposed. The DOT released the results Monday.

The results are important because the DOT is considering taking over the project from Charleston County, but officials have said they would not do so unless they were certain that it had widespread public support and that there was money to pay for it. The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank last month approved the final $138 million for the $558 million project. Local leaders are hopeful the survey results will demonstrate community support.

DOT officials have not yet said when they would decide whether they will take over the project.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a Charleston Republican and staunch supporter of the project, said in a news release, “This poll reflects what we have long said, and what Lowcountry residents have long known — our community firmly supports the completion of 526. ... This poll now makes it official — they want this road finished.”

He also said that he thinks the survey results would deflate opposition to the project. “Faced with such overwhelming community support, the tactics and misinformation campaigns of those fighting to kill 526 are now left with no ground to stand on.”

Supporters of the road say it’s needed to alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety conditions on local roads.

Opponents say the road will promote development and sprawl and that there are many more pressing road projects in the region and state.

Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League, a strong opponent of the project, said he’s not surprised by the results based on the way the one survey question was asked. It simply asked if people supported the project, Beach said.

He thinks the results would have been different if the survey had asked people to rank the project among other road priorities, and to consider limited financial resources. “The way the question is asked will determine how the question is answered,” Beach said. His group will continue to fight the road, Beach said. “The answer they got was not meaningful because it was obtained in an absurd and dishonest way.”

The DOT in late July sent the survey to a random sample of 5,000 homes in the ZIP codes that would be most affected by the project. The ZIP codes were 29407, 29412, 29414, 29439, 29455 and 29487.

The questionnaire asked whether people favored or opposed the extension of the Mark Clark Expressway along the proposed route, and their age, race and gender.

Robert Oldendick, director of the USC institute that conducted the survey, said the results are based on 2,189 responses — 1,999 were received in the mail and 190 were conducted over the phone. The institute called all the people who didn’t respond by mail, if it had a phone number for them, he said. It was able to find phone numbers for about half of them, but response rates for phone surveys tend to be low, he said.

Beyond the overall support shown by the survey, the results showed:

79 percent of men and 67 percent of women favor the project.

82 percent of blacks and 70 percent of whites favor it.

Robin Welch, a member of the grassroots opposition group Nix 526, said she also is not surprised by the results based on how the question was asked. Her group, which has more than 3,000 members on Facebook, will continue to fight, she said. When the DOT held a public comment session on the proposed project, more than 60 percent of people who responded were opposed to the project, she said. And those sessions are part of a federal process, she added.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley supports the project and has frequently said the majority of Charleston-area residents also support it. The survey results reflect what he has heard from his constituents, Riley said.

Riley also said he thinks the opposition at the DOT’s public comment sessions was “orchestrated by the Coastal Conservation League.”

“People are suffering from traffic jams, traffic congestion and less than safe highway conditions,” Riley said. “People want it completed.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.