Abundant evidence proves costly folly of extending I-526

Debate continues of completing Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands.

In his column Wednesday, Brian Hicks levies some wide-ranging accusations against the Coastal Conservation League, a variety of politicians, and neighbors who did what The Post and Courier usually encourages: engaging in the democratic process.

But Hicks’ buffet of blame over the demise of the I-526 extension is missing a few things: the facts.

The truth — based on the South Carolina Department of Transportation’s studies and the numerous public participation opportunities over the past several years — is the proposed I-526 extension would have come at an enormous cost to taxpayers and the environment, with very little benefit.

The DOT’s own traffic studies showed the I-526 extension would shave just 36 seconds from the average car trip in West Ashley and on James Island at a current cost of more than $700 million.

That’s about $19.5 million per second. This is hardly a solution to the real traffic problems in Charleston.

After nine years of planning and study, neither the state nor the county could justify that massive bill to taxpayers. Not to mention the damaged caused to communities and the environment by building an interstate through a rural sea island. In the end, it just wasn’t worth it on every level.

But there is a way to keep the money that has been earmarked for the Charleston region and put it into meaningful, cost-effective solutions that will deliver real results.

Contrary to Mr. Hicks’ view, the State Infrastructure Bank is not the “opponent” here.

The simple fact is that $420 million has been tied up for a decade while critical transportation needs right here in our own region have gone unfunded. The bank wants to move forward, and if the county isn’t willing to fund its share of the I-526 extension (which is twice the county’s entire annual budget), that $420 million could be put to better use elsewhere.

We believe the county should work with the infrastructure bank and transportation department to use that money for a flyover at Main Road and US 17 and for bus rapid transit along the I-26 corridor.

The flyover, which already has wide public support, would solve significant flooding problems, improve hurricane evacuation times, and ease daily traffic backups getting on and off of Johns Island.

When compared to the I-526 extension, the flyover could be built in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost with a fraction of the environmental damage.

Bus rapid transit would reduce automobile traffic, spur development around bus stops, and offer more people access to mass transit.

Almost everyone would agree that we need a solution to the current stand-still traffic that occurs daily on I-26, and investment in public transportation would go a long way toward solving the problem. The infrastructure bank has already expressed interest in funding innovative projects like this.

I don’t like being stuck in traffic any more that Mr. Hicks, but the I-526 extension was not the answer.

These alternative projects would preserve money meant for our region and use those valuable taxpayer funds more wisely.

Mr. Hicks can continue to complain, but we will keep working for smarter solutions.

Natalie Olson is the Land Use program director and staff attorney for the Coastal Conservation League.