We are about $2 billion short of what we need to rescue Charleston from the ‘’existential’’ threat of the rising tides, but local, state and federal governments are lining up to spend $6 billion or so on ever more and wider highways. This is insane.
The Highway-Industrial Complex — the road contractors, the bankers, the developers, the lawyers, the engineers, the Chick-fil-A franchisees and on and on — is deeply invested in the greatest spending spree in the tri-county region’s history. The concept is simple: Big roads — big paydays.
There’s the benignly named $1.1 billion Lowcountry Corridor West project, which will widen I-526 to eight lanes and redesign the massive interchange with I-26. There’s the $2.1 billion in Charleston County half-cent sales tax money for widening S.C. 41, widening S.C. 176, widening Dorchester Road. And then, of course, $750 million for the I-526 extension and billions more to widen 526 from Daniel Island to Mount Pleasant.
Where does Widening Madness end? More gridlock, bet on it.
There’s nothing new here. Back in the 1930s, Robert Moses, the legendary builder of New York, invented the parkway to reduce congestion. He would build a parkway and it would fill up and he would build another. One bridge followed another, and still the traffic jams returned. Moses observed it all from the back seat of a limousine because he never learned to drive.
It’s called induced demand; make it easier for people to drive and they will. South Carolina is the 40th largest state and we have the fourth largest state-maintained road network, and yet we want to build more. Our highways and bridges are falling down, and yet we want to build more. Fix It First should be more than a bumper sticker.
There’s no way to build ourselves out of gridlock. We need to change the model: Spend less, not more, on roads. For every billion dollars we spend making it easier to drive, we should spend a billion dollars making it easier not to drive. Automobiles are bad for our health — commuters have higher levels of cholesterol and blood sugar and greater depression — and bad for the health of the planet. Cars should come with a health warning like cigarettes do.
Charleston, America’s No. 1 tourist destination, should become a national leader in creating a new transportation paradigm for mid-size cities. In some ways we’re ideally suited to do it: Unlike Columbia and Greenville, which sprawl in every direction, Charleston is hemmed in by the Atlantic. The peninsula itself is hemmed in by the Ashley and the Cooper.
We need to continue incentivizing development into the upper peninsula, into the brownfields of Magnolia and Laurel Island, and into that No Man’s Land called North Charleston. The vast unused and underused tracts in North Charleston should be ground zero of future growth, not greenfield developments where lone commuters battle the traffic every day.
The Charleston-to-Summerville bus rapid transit project, scheduled to open in 2025, is a start. But we need to consider high-occupancy vehicle and bus lanes if I-26 and 526 are widened. The newly funded bike and pedestrian bridge over the Ashley is a miracle that will connect West Ashley and the hospital district, no car required.
The answer lies in an all-of-the-above approach. Regional planning and zoning that direct growth to where we want it and away from where we don’t. Smaller, less expensive road fixes like the “pitchfork” on Johns Island would make an outsize difference. More frequent and dependable buses, staggered business hours, work-at-home, good neighborhood schools, ride-sharing and more all need to be prioritized.
Massive road projects are impossibly expensive to build and maintain and painfully disruptive to communities. Fifty years ago, the Crosstown Expressway sliced through a predominately black neighborhood, destroying 150 homes. The construction of I-26 in the ‘60s took a big bite out of the tiny Rosemont community in the Neck Area, then a mixed neighborhood with blacks on one street and whites on another.
Three houses my grandfather and his brother built with their own hands were among the many homes lost. They were modest clapboard houses with screened porches and tin roofs. My favorite memory is the goldfish pond in the front garden; my favorite picture of my mom is the pretty 17-year-old standing proudly with her bike in front of their picket fence.
Now we’re about to do it all over again, taking out 115 homes in low-income North Charleston neighborhoods like Liberty Hill, Highland Terrace and Russelldale.
And it’s not going to work any better today than it did a half-century ago. How long until the gridlock is back, and it starts all over again?
Steve Bailey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @sjbailey1060.