Charleston County residents should be concerned that lawmakers from other parts of the state — who have little direct political skin in the game regarding building the rest of I-526 across James and Johns islands — seem more pragmatic about that risky, expensive project than our local leaders.
Several members of the state Joint Bond Review Committee posed thoughtful and important questions on Wednesday about the economic viability and practical utility of building roughly 7 miles of highway at a cost of $720 million or more — including at least $330 million from Charleston County taxpayers.
Charleston area officials mostly brushed aside those questions with platitudes about the project’s necessity as a means of traffic relief.
In fact, Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey told The Post and Courier’s Robert Behre that the county would proceed with the project even without the committee’s support. County Council voted in February to approve $3 million for preliminary work.
But that sort of cavalier attitude regarding what would be one of the largest outlays of taxpayer dollars in Charleston County history is deeply disappointing. So is County Council’s determination to press forward at public expense on a project with so many unanswered questions.
The $720 million cost estimate is several years old, for example. The state Department of Transportation doesn’t expect to have an updated figure until late next year at the earliest. County Council unwisely committed to covering any costs beyond the agreed upon $330 million, which could be considerable.
There are no up-to-date environmental permits in place for a road that would have a tremendous environmental impact, crossing sensitive marshes, rivers and wetlands.
There are opportunities to build less expensive, more straightforward traffic interventions to offer relief to people in West Ashley and on Johns and James islands, including the second part of a pitchfork on Maybank Highway and a flyover at Main Road and Highway 17.
And County Council’s presumption that its tax revenues are a bottomless source of future revenue for ill-conceived efforts like 526 is based on some problematic thinking.
For one thing, Charleston County’s continued economic growth and popularity as a tourism destination are not guaranteed. Current trends point in that direction, but that could change quickly.
Even in a best-case scenario, the unpredictability of growth makes a project with a more than 10-year time frame like 526 all the more risky. Smaller bets would be a smarter approach.
Most of these arguments have been made countless times before, but so far have not been sufficient to dissuade County Council from taking such a huge gamble on a single project of questionable utility to the people who need traffic relief the most.
Thankfully, some state officials seem to have clearer heads.
They should continue to put the brakes on 526 until, at a minimum, their concerns about the project can be adequately addressed.