Hit the brakes on I-526 extension

Traffic coming off I-26 (foreground) waits for traffic along Ashley Phosphate Road. (Wade Spees/File)

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, in its Feb. 1 op-ed, argues that we should remain focused on our region’s most important transportation needs — and they are exactly right.

It is critical that we support, and insist on, funding for our highest priority projects, particularly in light of the recent attention the media, the governor and the General Assembly have given South Carolina’s crumbling road system.Those unequivocal priorities are I-26 and the airport connector projects.

I-26 is unquestionably the most important road in South Carolina, connecting Charleston and the ports to Columbia and the rest of the state. Hundreds of thousands of commuters and some of the state’s most important industries rely on it every day. However, over the last eight years, traffic has increased by more than 25 percent as the regional population has skyrocketed. At the same time, the road has fallen deeper into a state of disrepair. In fact, the two most heavily congested stretches of highway in South Carolina are now both located on I-26 in Charleston County.

The airport connector projects are also critically important, and a top priority for our region. These projects include a new interchange between Ashley Phosphate Road and U.S. 78, and extending South Aviation Avenue to the Palmetto Commerce Parkway and on to I-26. In addition to supporting significant economic development opportunities in the corridor, they will remove more than 20,000 cars from I-26 each day and alleviate traffic around Boeing’s expanding campus and the Charleston International Airport.

Importantly, when ranked on engineering-based criteria and solid transportation data, both of these projects rise to the top, far ahead of the proposed extension of I-526 from West Ashley to Johns Island.

To be clear, the I-526 extension project is not now — nor has it ever been — a regional priority. The only groups to ever proclaim it as such are the handful of powerful politicians (including former Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell) pushing it for their own political interests. These politicians have misinformed residents, who have placed their faith in the false and exaggerated promises of reduced traffic and commute times.

The Chamber’s vague claims of meaningful improvements to traffic flow and commute times are not supported by any data. In fact, the improvements would be nominal at best in some areas. Congestion would actually increase in others. Based on the South Carolina Department of Transportation’s calculations, the project would save commuters less than 40 seconds, on average, from James Island and West Ashley, and about four and a half minutes from Johns Island. At an estimated cost of over $600 million, this seven-mile extension of I-526 is beyond wasteful. It is reckless, especially given the $40 billion transportation shortfall we are estimated to have over the next 25 years.

Fortunately, this last point hasn’t gone unnoticed. After more than a year of negotiations, an agreement between Charleston County, the DOT, and the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank (SCTIB) has still not been reached — and, therefore, the project is still short a minimum of $158 million. Even if an agreement were reached and this funding was secured, it would not be available for more than 20 years, based on the SCTIB’s current bonding capacity.

According to statements made by its commissioners, SCDOT has lost faith in the completion of the project. Furthermore, SCTIB has specified that it will not give any additional funding to the extension of I-526, nor will it pay for legal fees associated with permitting. Even in the unlikely event that an intergovernmental agreement is reached, Charleston County will be left holding the bill for all cost overruns, which could reach well over $60 million by the time it is all said and done. The county has no way of covering even a fraction of these costs.

To put it simply, the extension of I-526 has reached a dead end.

It is, therefore, critical that we work together as a region to focus our efforts on funding data-driven, engineering-based transportation priorities, like I-26 and the airport connector projects.

Absolutely nothing prevents SCTIB from reallocating the extension’s funding to these projects of both regional and statewide significance — except for political influence and intimidation. Given the increased legislative scrutiny on transportation funding and the bipartisan support for rational spending, it’s time that we break through the political gridlock and start talking about the real solutions to our transportation infrastructure needs.

Myles Maland is land use project manager at the Coastal Conservation League.