At least it’s better than nothing. But after years of waiting for traffic relief, Johns Island residents deserve more than half measures.
Last month, Charleston County Council approved funding for the northern part of the “pitchfork” plan to relieve traffic congestion on Maybank Highway where it crosses onto Johns Island. The southern portion has been shelved indefinitely.
With only half of the pitchfork in the works, traffic will still be a daily frustration for Johns Island commuters. The decade-old plan depends on both routes to disperse cars away from the congested intersection at Maybank Highway and River Road.
So far, the only explanation from County Council Chairman Vic Rawl for the partial pitchfork plan has been that the southern portion lacks funding.
That’s true. The northern leg will be constructed with leftover money from a larger effort to improve traffic on Maybank Highway and supplemented with funds from the first half-cent sales tax county voters approved in 2004. The pitchfork plan was not included in a list of potential projects for the 2016 half-cent tax.
It’s important to voter confidence and the viability of other critical transportation needs that the half-cent sales tax money not be used indiscriminately or for efforts that voters didn’t knowingly approve of, particularly for wildly expensive projects like building the rest of I-526 across James and Johns islands.
But the pitchfork plan is relatively affordable as road projects go. The northern end is expected to cost about $4 million. The southern path would cost about $7.5 million. Taken together, the entire pitchfork would cost about 1.6 percent of the estimated $720 million cost of building 526, for example.
And the relief provided would be significant. A 2015 traffic study found that building the north and southbound pitchfork would actually have a greater impact on congestion on Maybank Highway than building 526 — again, for a tiny fraction of the cost.
Even building just the northern portion is expected to save commuters three minutes during afternoon rush hour, according to a county report released earlier this summer. That’s a major improvement for such a modest cost. But the plan won’t work as well as it could without both roads.
County Council has expressed plenty of enthusiasm on multiple occasions for spending $150 million or more in county funds on 526 without explaining where that money would come from. So the lack of funding for the southern portion of the pitchfork appears to be a lack of political will more than anything else.
Johns Island’s residential population is growing rapidly, and roads can take a long time to permit, design and build. Putting half of the pitchfork project off for now means years of delay even if County Council eventually approves it.
And delays have cost Johns Island commuters dearly.
Charleston County Council finally put half of the pitchfork plan into motion last month. That’s progress in the right direction. But Johns Island residents deserve more than half measures.