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Editorial: Meet the new 526 extension, same as the old 526 extension

526 - Mark Clark Expressway (copy)

An overpriced, unnecessary plan to extend the Mark Clark Expressway, also known as Interstate 526, beyond its current end near Citadel Mall will be the subject of fresh public hearings. File/Staff

The newly updated environmental impact study for the controversial extension of the Mark Clark Expressway from West Ashley to Johns and James islands likely won't change many minds, but upcoming hearings will give opponents a fresh opportunity to repeat all the sound reasons why it shouldn't be built at all. They should take full advantage of this chance, and decision-makers should listen.

As we've argued for years, investing hundreds of millions of precious Charleston County dollars in the I-526 extension instead of more worthwhile projects is wrongheaded, and County Council should reverse it. Doing so would free up $300 million or more to improve our public transportation network, make smaller-scale road improvements on and off Johns Island, and focus more on fixing flooding, which rivals congestion as the Charleston region's public enemy No. 1.

Our displeasure also stems from County Council's deceitful flip-flop: deliberately leaving the hot-button extension off of the list of projects county voters were told would be built with if they voted in 2016 to extend the half-cent sales tax, only to commit a huge chunk of the money to it after the vote.

Thursday's update from the S.C. Department of Transportation is a lot of back to the future: Its recommendation is the same Alternative G, low-speed parkway that was on the table before it suddenly wasn't and then eventually was again — except by then so much time had passed that the environmental impact statement needed a fresh update.

The update did not look at new alternatives, such as the Lowcountry Rapid Transit system, the first line of which is being created between Ladson and downtown Charleston, nor did it analyze how smaller-scale road improvements could provide comparable traffic relief without costing nearly as much or causing anywhere near as much damage.

As Jason Crowley of the Coastal Conservation League explained: "This plan would displace 13 residences and seven commercial buildings in West Ashley and James Island, cut through the northern portion of James Island County Park taking more than 32 acres of the park, have an adverse effect on the Fenwick Hall Historic District, impact more than 31 acres of fresh and saltwater wetlands, and open Johns Island to even more intense development than we have already been experiencing over the past decade. Adding insult to injury, the review shows that Alternative G still does not provide significant congestion relief to our most heavily trafficked corridors like Savannah Highway and Folly Road."

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Alternative G would take fewer homes and businesses and bother fewer people with noise than the other options the state considered, but sounds emanating from the highway still would affect about 180 homes, not an insignificant number.  

The public can learn more in-person Aug. 31 at Hart Meadows Ranch on Johns Island (2837 Edenvale Road) or Sept. 1 at James Island County Park (871 Riverland Drive). Both community meetings are from 4-7 p.m. A public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 14 at the Essex Village Church at 736 Savage Road in West Ashley, preceded by an open house from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

We urge everyone to participate. As envisioned, this project will be the most expensive project in Charleston County's history, at least as measured by the amount of local funding involved in building it. No updated cost projection was completed for the updated impact statement, so we won't know for certain whether the price tag would be in the neighborhood of $725 million to $772 million — the state’s current projection from 2019 — or much more.

It was not reassuring to hear S.C. Department of Transportation project manager James Mattox say that once the new number is determined, "we’ll see where we’re at and determine if there’s ways to fund if there is a shortfall." The county is legally obligated to cover the difference if it's any higher, which should be alarming to taxpayers given council's failure to successfully manage other big-dollar projects.

Count on the extension costing more than the state's outdated calculation, another reason County Council should yank its support and let this project get back in line with other state and federally funded projects.

Speak out against it now to help council members summon the courage to do just that.

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