Charleston County Council voted recently to fund and build only half of the Maybank Highway “pitchfork,” a Johns Island road improvement project planned since 2008, that if fully built would unclog a bottleneck and put an end to a commuter nightmare.
The Post and Courier reported that council approved spending $4.1 million on the northern part of the pitchfork, one of two new roads that would branch off Maybank and carry traffic to River Road, bypassing the congested intersection of Maybank and River. The project also included adding an additional lane to one side of Maybank to improve the flow of traffic onto the island during the evening rush hour. That lane opened Wednesday and is making a big difference. But we need the entire project built to effectively disperse traffic and relieve congestion. That includes building both sides of the pitchfork.
Reporter Abigail Darlington recently quoted Chairman Vic Rawl saying the status of the southern part of the pitchfork, with an estimated $7.5 million price tag, is “completely up in the air as to whether we’re even going to look at it again.” Rawl also said other projects might soak up money that could be available for the southern portion of the project at the entrance to Johns Island. And, he said, the county would have to do its own study to prove that the southern pitchfork would be worthwhile.
Really? The county has already studied the pitchfork more than anything else on Johns Island. Rawl’s recent comments leave us wondering why he appears to be stalling on a project that could be built in a relatively short amount of time and bring relief to a severely congested area.
Traffic studies on the intersection of Maybank and River date back to 2004. That’s when the county first commissioned a study along Maybank, from the Paul Gelegotis Bridge to Main Road, soon after residents voted in favor of the first half-cent sales tax. The county had planned to widen a long stretch of Maybank from two lanes to four or five. But it dropped that plan after a sustained public outcry to preserve the road’s iconic live oak canopy.
In 2008 — after the city adopted the Johns Island Community Plan and the idea of a pitchfork was batted around — the Coastal Conservation League partnered with the county and the city of Charleston to fund a new traffic study. Conducted by Hall Planning and Engineering, the analysis showed that the pitchfork concept would provide relief at the troubled intersection.
But Charleston County still wasn’t convinced. It hired the Urban Land Institute (ULI) to review all existing studies and provide a professional and unbiased opinion on the pitchfork plan. ULI recommended moving forward with a pitchfork to relieve traffic congestion.
Ten years, tens of thousands of dollars and multiple studies later, the conclusion is the same: The pitchfork is viable and should be built to relieve traffic congestion on Johns Island.
It is time to move forward. While the county stalls, developers march ahead. The city and county have approved more than 6,000 new residential units across Johns Island. The island needs traffic relief now, not another study. We need the pitchfork — the entire pitchfork.
Jason Crowley is communities and transportation program director with the Coastal Conservation League.