Keep I-526 as top priority on road list

The James Island Connector now ends at Folly Road. If built, the Mark Clark Extension would continue over Folly Road into an area along Ellis Creek to new interesections at Riley Road and Riverland Road before slicing through the James Island County Park. ( Leroy Burnell/File)

The need for infrastructure across our state is front and center in the media as the governor and S.C. General Assembly attempt to find a solution to increase dedicated funding to fix South Carolina’s roads. In light of the attention on infrastructure funding, we want to remain intently focused on one of our region’s most important infrastructure projects as it is currently the only one with dedicated funding to move the project forward — the completion of I-526 (Mark Clark Expressway) from West Ashley to the James Island Connector. Completion of this project will positively impact traffic flow and commute times for the entire region and point to the next wave of needed infrastructure enhancements.

High quality, effective transportation infrastructure is critical for our economic well-being, safety and quality of life. Our region’s employers know this — they want safe and timely commutes for their workforce, as well as effective delivery of goods and services to their customers, each day.

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce also knows that safe, sufficient and modern infrastructure spells success for our region. As the region’s leading private sector organization, the Chamber advances the quality of life and economic well-being of the region by supporting policies that contribute to the quality growth of the region and the state as a whole. With 1,700 member businesses and organizations representing more than 125,000 workers locally, meeting our current and future infrastructure needs is a top priority for the Charleston Metro Chamber.

Our region is dramatically different than it was just a few years ago. We are fortunate to have substantial diversified economic growth occurring as a result of the development and expansion of many sectors including manufacturing, health care, construction, education, the port and the visitor industry. We now estimate our region’s population is growing at a rate of 43 people a day and will reach more than one million within the next 15 years.

The completion of I-526 is just one of the priority infrastructure needs we must address. We view the completion as just that — the completion of a regional road begun decades ago. The existing 19.26 mile stretch in Charleston opened in 1992 and since its inception there have been plans for the road to connect from Hwy. 17 North in Mount Pleasant to the James Island Connector. This is a crucial piece of regional infrastructure that will help to address current and future safety, ease of commute and economic development realities.

The purpose of completing the Mark Clark Expressway is to reduce traffic pressure using the Savannah Highway/Wesley Road/Folly Road corridor and the EIS (environmental impact statement) model studies show that it will successfully perform this function. Even the James Island Connector and Lockwood Drive will see reduced traffic — translating into savings of time and fuel for commuters.

The call of opponents to re-allocate I-526 designated funds to other regional projects is simply not an option. If we opt to re-allocate, the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) will use the funds for other projects that have been applied for, and Charleston County has not submitted any applications for commuter rail, light rail or I-26. Current funds for completing I-526 would end up being spent around the state and it is highly unlikely any would be spent locally.

The region’s existing infrastructure is simply inadequate to handle the current needs of the area, much less the anticipated growth. The region must be prepared to invest in new infrastructure if it is to continue to be the vibrant community we treasure, due in no small part to its location, human resources and natural environment. It is no longer a choice of investing in one road or another — we must find a way to address the infrastructure needs throughout our region. We must be creative and innovative in finding funding solutions to address the full range of infrastructure needs.

Let’s work together to find the solution to complete I-526 and fund the other needed projects in our region. It is not an “either/or” nor an “us versus them.” It is time for our region to work collectively to find solutions that meet all our needs. That’s why I-526 matters and serves as a precursor to our region’s future infrastructure efforts.

Laura Varn is board chair of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. Bryan Derreberry is the chamber’s president and CEO.