MUSC President Dr. David Cole’s request for federal funds to address flooding in the hospital district exposed significant contradictions in the actual needs of our area compared to the needs that some of our local leaders are addressing.
From MUSC, there is an emergency request for funding by the leader of our region’s only Level 1 trauma center to address flooding in the critically important hospital district. Two days later, Charleston County asserted that it is flush with the cash needed to complete I-526.
The hospital district is crucial to our entire community’s physical and economic health. Flooding renders it dysfunctional and must be addressed. Meanwhile, the county claims that there is excess funding for a project mired in years of controversy, with questionable public support, and even more doubtful long-term improvements for our community. This demonstrates a lack of proper triage as it pertains to road and infrastructure projects in our area. Webster’s defines “triage” as the sorting of patients according to the urgency of their need for care.
In 2016, our county leadership proposed a project list to be funded by the half-cent sales tax. Meeting minutes, county council votes, media reports, public perception, and Page 3 of the ordinance itself show that the list includes:
- Airport area road improvements
- Dorchester Road widening
- Flyover at U.S. 17 at Main Road
- Savannah Highway/Ashley River bridges/Crosstown infrastructure improvements
- Widening Highway 41 from U.S. 17 to Wando Bridge
- Improving U.S. 78 from U.S. 52 to county line
- Savannah Highway capacity improvements
- Resurfacing, bike/pedestrian facilities
- Glenn McConnell Parkway widening
- James Island intersection and pedestrian improvements
- Northside Drive realignment at Ashley Phosphate Road
- Rural road improvements
This is the list that a majority of Charleston County voters affirmed in a 2016 referendum. I-526 is notably absent from this list. In fact, it was very publicly removed from the list just prior to the vote.
Yet, just recently, Charleston County told a state committee it had produced no such list to the public and, in fact, “anything that qualified as a road” could be funded by the half-cent sales tax revenues.
Denying the existence of the list of half-cent projects presented in public forums to voters is misleading at best. If this list had not been published prior to the vote, and I-526 had not been removed from this list, I and many others would have voted no for the half-cent sales tax, and it would not have been approved. However, it did carry because the list consists of sensible cost-effective infrastructure solutions that the voting public knows will work.
Instead, I-526 comes with a huge price tag and will not be effective in solving immediate traffic needs. It competes with other regional priorities, like flooding in the hospital district and less expensive voter-approved projects that will make a greater and more immediate impact on traffic congestion relief.
I-526 terminates in the dysfunctional, already-gridlocked hospital district flood zone. Currently, every exit from I-526 is bumper to bumper at peak traffic times. I am no traffic engineer, but how will adding more cars to already choked exits improve traffic congestion? I predict that traffic will be no better with the completion of I-526 and possibly worse in certain areas. It will certainly be worse if I-526 is funded instead of and over the voter-approved, certain-to-work traffic improvements.
I-526 was first conceived prior to 1970. It has been proven time and time again in multiple other cities across the nation that this type of interstate traffic solution does not work in the long run. Our local leaders know this, our state/regional leaders know this, and the public knows this. That is why this traffic “solution” was intentionally removed from the list in 2016.
I-526 is an outdated solution for a problem that is not quite as simple as it used to be. In 1970, we had no concept of the amount of growth that we would experience, no concept of flooding and the real problems that it presents, and no concept of the leadership crisis that we are now experiencing.
Why are our local leaders going to such great effort to deceive their constituents so that they can pursue such an expensive and ineffective solution? It may be too late for our local leaders to learn about transparency in government and public trust, but maybe they can come to the hospital for a lesson in proper techniques of triage.
Dr. Walter Dale “Bo” Blessing Jr. is a surgeon and resident of Charleston and multi-generation Johns Island landowner.