As the smoke cleared from the back room of the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) meeting on Tuesday, it was obvious that the board did not understand at least one important reality: The world has changed in the past half-century since I-526 was first conceived. Its failure to acknowledge this now places the Charleston metropolitan region in grave danger — from chronic flooding, from catastrophic storm damage and from intractable traffic congestion.
Fifty years ago, there was broad consensus that interstate highways, looping around and through metropolitan areas, were the preferred modes of transportation. The automobile, it was believed, could serve all of our transportation needs, if only we provided enough asphalt. Subsequent decades, and billions of dollars of investment, in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and other large American cities with massive road systems and intractable gridlock, have debunked that belief.
The world has changed in other ways too. Fifty years ago, Charleston experienced an average of five days of “dry weather flooding” annually. Today, high tides, with no rain, now flood Charleston 30 times a year. This causes debilitating transportation problems, along with extensive and costly damage to businesses and homes. Some neighborhoods must cope with standing water in their front yards every few weeks, posing not only inconvenience but a serious public health threat.
Despite these seismic changes, some of our local elected leaders continue to declare that spending almost three-quarters of a billion dollars extending Interstate 526 to Johns Island is the region’s top infrastructure priority.
The debate over this project has frozen, for more than a decade, $420 million designated for the highway extension by the STIB — money that could be used on other, more important transportation projects right away. It has blocked the construction of inexpensive, easily implemented congestion relief measures like the Maybank Highway “pitchfork,” which just last month Chairman Vic Rawl declared the county does not have enough money to build.
And the I-526 extension debate has hijacked a much-needed public discussion about the future of the region — about projects like bus rapid transit and flood relief — in favor of a pointless war of words about a road the Department of Transportation’s own projections suggest will cut 36 seconds off of the average trip from Savannah Highway to downtown Charleston.
For two years now, the county has failed to identify funds to cover the road shortfall. On Tuesday, Charleston promised to make up that shortfall — a minimum of $305 million — by pledging the core state funding allocated to the county (called “aid to subdivisions”) as collateral, thus jeopardizing basic county services for years in the future.
John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.” And today we must face facts. The most important of these is that the I-526 extension simply cannot be built. First, there is not enough money. The STIB funding available is $305 million short of the $725 million projection amount and, as the county discovered, the additional money for the road simply does not exist.
Second, the Environmental Impact Statement is years out of date. Revising this document and completing other federal reviews would take years and cost millions more dollars, with no guarantee of ultimate approval.
And then there is the question of competence. It has taken Charleston County almost 10 years to build a 3/4-mile-long lane on Maybank Highway between the Stono bridge and River Road (which has eliminated the congestion at this intersection). It is inconceivable that this same county can construct an 8-mile-long interstate, through a county park and residential neighborhoods, with two massive bridges over the Stono, in less than a few decades.
The circumstances surrounding the proposal to extend 526 to Johns Island must be considered along with the infrastructure needs throughout the region. In the city of Charleston alone, essential flood abatement projects are estimated to cost at least $2 billion. The city has identified less than one-tenth of that funding, leaving Charleston in grave danger from catastrophic storms like Florence, Irma and Matthew. The $420 million allocated to the I-526 extension in 2007 is the single largest, most practical opportunity to begin work on flood abatement projects in West Ashley and downtown and on James and Johns islands.
In the face of these realities, our representatives have continued to perpetrate the political fantasy that the 526 extension can and should be built. If our politicians will not tell the truth, it falls to citizens to pull back the curtain on the process and force the issue. Nothing less than the survival of our region is at stake.
Jason Crowley is communities and transportation program director with the Coastal Conservation League.