There are reasons to approach with caution a planned $1.1 billion widening of I-526 through West Ashley and North Charleston, which will include a redesign of the intersection with I-26. Freeway widenings almost never offer the traffic relief residents need.
But one of the main concerns about the 526 expansion project doesn’t have much to do with traffic at all — at least not on the face of it.
Adding a new lane in each direction and a planned 75-foot buffer along 526 could mean displacing dozens of residents and bulldozing their houses, many of which are among the few remaining homes in the Charleston region that are affordable for low- and moderate-income residents.
An early S.C. Department of Transportation estimate suggested that 87 homes in North Charleston could be affected by the first phase of work.
A $1.1 billion plan to widen Interstate 526 and redesign the interchange with I-26 will have big impacts on North Charleston homeowners, and on commuters.
Even if those residents were generously compensated for the value of their lost property, they would likely struggle to find similarly priced housing elsewhere.
And this could actually end up making traffic worse by pushing people farther away from the region’s core and making them more dependent on cars for longer trips on already-crowded roads.
Housing affordability is a significant contributor to road congestion in the Charleston area.
There aren’t enough neighborhoods in the region where modestly priced housing is located close to major employers. And without a serious mass transit system or reasonable investments in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, most commuters are left to get to work by car.
Charleston officials have taken the most aggressive approach to increasing the supply of affordable homes by adopting “workforce housing” zoning rules and turning $20 million voters approved in 2016 for new housing into a variety of planned projects.
Other municipalities have some catching up to do. But at a minimum we should avoid tearing down existing reasonably priced housing whenever possible.
DOT officials told The Post and Courier’s David Slade that the agency would consider building new housing as part of its mitigation plan for the I-526 widening. That’s a good start.
DOT should also gradually shift its priorities away from expensive widening projects toward amenities such as mass transit that give people more transportation options. That’s a much more sustainable long-term approach to handling traffic in a growing region.
But in the meantime, it’s important to keep in mind that houses — particularly affordable ones — aren’t something standing in the way of traffic relief. They’re an essential part of it.