Ask a simple question, get a simple answer.
That’s what the state Department of Transportation has done in regard to I-526. It asked a random sample of residents if they supported building the latest proposal for its extension.
Yes or no.
By a nearly three-to-one margin, the survey’s 2,189 respondents (1,999 by mail, 190 by phone) said yes.
That response is viewed by proponents of the extension plan — notably Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and House Speaker Bobby Harrell — as sufficient to proceed with construction.
Both have been highly critical of the 2010 public hearing process that overwhelmingly rejected the so-called parkway proposal for the extension. Mayor Riley has described the opposition as “orchestrated by the Coastal Conservation League.”
The League has backed a no-build option. So did Charleston County Council before it was threatened with having to pay back $11.6 million in state funding spent on the project.
In contrast to the survey, the five 2010 hearings provided an opportunity for an explanation by highway planners on the parkway plan as well as the other options prepared by the DOT. It offered those who attended an opportunity to speak their minds about the project in some detail, not merely with a simple “yes” or “no.”
At those hearings, it was evident that residents were more interested in improvements to the current road system than a costly new interstate loop link that could encourage additional development on Johns and James islands.
And the minority who spoke out in favor of the I-526 extension cited the existing freeway model as their preference.
The parkway plan would generally have a speed limit of 45 mph and four additional intersections — one more on Johns Island and three on James Island.
As planned, the parkway would feature speed limits as low as 35 mph — a detail that wasn’t included in information provided in the DOT survey mailout. And while it cites two intersections on James Island, two others aren’t listed, but appear as minuscule red lines on the map. In short, the survey asks for a simple “yes or no” response based on information that is shy of some essential details. The results can hardly be considered a definitive statement of informed public opinion.
The survey results were released in anticipation of a highway commission meeting Thursday in which the I-526 project is scheduled for discussion.
The DOT has been asked to take over the project for the State Infrastructure Bank, which agreed to fund the project, even though it is ranked only 15th among highway priorities by the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments.
There is even talk about the COG managing the project if the highway commission demurs.
Clearly, the politicians who support the extension are pulling out all the stops. And as part of that effort, they want the survey to serve as a public affirmation for the project.
The state-contracted survey of areas including Johns Island, James Island, West Ashley, Wadmalaw Island and Folly Beach is instructive, but should not be viewed as the last word
Not unless the DOT decides that its priority projects will henceforth be determined by tallying the results of a simple “yes or no” poll.