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Editorial: 6 things Charleston County Council needs to do in 2021

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Charleston County government is not unlike a soap opera: Characters come and go and see their influence rise and fall over time, but many overarching story lines remain similar. So when council resumes its regular meetings next week with two new members, a new chair and vice chair and a plate full of unfinished business left over from 2020, it will once again make decisions that will have a direct impact on matters of mobility and livability — that is, the matters that make our everyday lives better or worse.

The council can go a long way toward making life in Charleston County better with these six actions:

phillips_3.jpg (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

Traffic moves along S.C. Highway 41 in the Phillips community in Mount Pleasant in July. file/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Highway 41

Last year, Charleston County’s staff presented its “preferred alternative” for addressing congestion along this highway from the Wando River to U.S. Highway 17, which would widen S.C. Highway 41 from two to five lanes through a fragile, historic Phillips community.

The council initially was expected to decide last year whether to accept that plan, but that was deferred after a tsunami of public pushback and council elections. We hope council members stop the plan and instead commit to diverting much of Highway 41 traffic around Phillips on Dunes West Boulevard and Bessemer Road. This option would slightly lengthen trip times and cost about $30 million more, but it would prevent further damage to a community whose ethnic history and unique land development pattern make it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The residents of Phillips didn’t create this congestion, and they shouldn’t be sacrificed to solve it.

Passion for historic preservation has played a key role in keeping our communities unique, interesting and desirable places to live. This decision will go a long way toward showing that passion ultimately can work for all our communities.

Affordable housing

Affordable Housing

Grace Homes, affordable housing units, opened last year in downtown Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

There’s no disputing that the increasing lack of affordable housing remains one of the greatest challenges for the Charleston metro area, and County Council has a constructive role to play. Council members were asked to engage on the issue last year and instead opted to punt the question to county voters, in a referendum that was so short on details and so long on “trust us” that it was practically guaranteed to fail.

Those voters narrowly rejected raising property taxes by about $24 on a $300,000 home to create a pool of money for an affordable housing building spree. Council members must eye this outcome not as an end, but as the start. We’re convinced that with more work, specifically a more detailed plan about how such money would be spent, public support will come around.

Last year’s revelation of problems with Joseph Floyd Manor — by far the largest housing complex in the county housing authority’s portfolio — is but one straw on the camel’s back. Far beyond that building, it’s increasingly obvious how high housing costs hammer household budgets, worsen commutes, ultimately give businesses a greater challenge to find workers. The need for more action (and money) is clear enough that County Council should raise property taxes and get going without a referendum.

Interstate 526


A roadside sign warns that Interstate 526 ends in West Ashley. (File/Staff)

Soon, the S.C. Department of Transportation will seek public feedback on three potential designs for the county’s most controversial road project: the extension of Interstate 526 from Citadel Mall to Johns and James islands. Once a design is settled on, the state will give the county a new price tag for the work.

And that price tag will determine how much more than $300 million of county transportation sales tax dollars will need to be sunk into the project to finish it. Whatever the number, County Council needs to press pause. The extension is not the best use of local dollars, and rejecting it would rebuild trust with voters who approved extending the sales tax in 2016 after the council deliberately left the controversial project off its list of projects. Pressing pause also likely would end the ongoing lawsuit over that disgraceful bait-and-switch.

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Rapid transit

Some consider the Lowcountry Rapid Transit project the single most important thing on the county’s drawing board: The 21.5-mile-long link between Ladson and downtown Charleston would feature a new kind of bus that often has its own traffic lane, an ability to change traffic lights and other features to ensure it’s indeed rapid.

Rapid Bus Transit Rendering (copy) (copy)

A rendering showing an aerial look at a bus rapid transit stop. Provided.

While most of the planning work is being handled by the Charleston-Berkeley-Dorchester Council of Governments and the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority, County Council has pledged its transportation sales tax as the key local match, so it’s important for the council to stay aware and supportive of the project, tweaking it as necessary to ensure continued support.

There’s been relatively little controversy so far, but no one should be lulled into complacency. Important details still must be ironed out, such as how these rapid buses would pass through peninsular Charleston. The current best-case scenario still doesn’t have Lowcountry Rapid Transit running until 2026; as the lead local donor, County Council has a duty to ensure that already long timeline doesn’t slip.

Johns Island

Bohicket Road

Bohicket Road, one of the Johns Island's main thoroughfares, is the focus of a Charleston County road improvement project. File/staff

The newest debate facing County Council is the road project planned for Bohicket Road between Maybank Highway and Betsy Kerrison — also known as “Segment C” in the county’s Main Road Corridor widening project.

Widening this scenic, two-lane road to four or five lanes would alter the character of a still-rural part of Johns Island, and it also would make it more challenging for the county and city of Charleston to limit development outside the existing urban growth boundary (six of the road’s seven miles are on the rural side of the boundary).

Council members need to heed the desire of residents who want to keep Bohicket as picturesque and rural as possible.

Biking the North Bridge

Pedestrian on the Northbridge (copy)

The Northbridge, formally the World War II Memorial Bridge, has so little existing space for bikes and pedestrians that they often use the narrow raised median between lanes, as captured in this photo. David Christopher/Provided

With construction plans taking shape for a new bike and pedestrian bridge across the Ashley River just south of the U.S. Highway 17 bridges, the dangerous lack of such a route — even a narrow sidewalk — has made the North Bridge between North Charleston and West Ashley the next most urgent issue for the bike-ped community.

James Burgess, 59, died trying to cross the bridge on his bike last summer, becoming only the latest in a too-long list of fatalities here. County Council has commissioned an updated study of alternatives for providing bike-pedestrian access over the bridge, and when it arrives, council members, guided by community input, should settle on the most promising solution and aggressively pursue it. Lives are literally at stake.

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