Charleston makes state a 526 offer it can’t — or shouldn’t — refuse

Leroy Burnell/staff The proposed path of Mark Clark Expressway looking toward Johns Island from West Ashley.

On Friday, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg planted himself firmly in the middle of the fight to save 526.

He sat down with state officials and offered a variation on the plan that might finally get the Mark Clark Expressway finished, a mere 50 years after it was planned.

Like others, he realizes the $420 million set aside for the bypass is all we can expect from the state. South Carolina simply is not living up to its road commitments — shocker there — so he has taken the only logical course.

We will pay for the rest.

The county is expected to ask voters for a half-cent sales tax increase in November, and Tecklenburg says the city would like to use $150 million of the billion-plus it would raise to fund part of the $300 million shortfall on the road — and then toll the new section of interstate until those fees pay off the other half.

Is it a perfect solution? No. But it’s the best we’ve got, and Tecklenburg, like most reasonable people, realizes the road is that important.

“I believe our citizens would be willing to do that,” the mayor says. “If you look at the long-term needs for traffic, it’s just worth it.”

Congestion in the Lowcountry has reached a critical mass, to the point that it’s affecting our quality of life. Ask any traffic engineer, they will tell you this road is crucial, no matter what the naysayers contend.

Some people have not realized this isn’t Mayberry anymore, that we can’t pedal our way out of this one.

Luckily, the mayor isn’t one of them.

Some folks will tell you that extending 526 to Johns and James islands will save only seconds in the average West Ashley commute.

Yeah, you can make statistics say anything. Extending the bypass may only save 15 seconds on the “average trip” in West Ashley, which includes the quarter-mile jaunt from Target to Best Buy.

But it will save 15 or 20 minutes on the average commute to and from Johns Island.

These folks say 526 will lead to over-development of Johns Island. Too late. Truth is, the path of 526 only goes through the urban growth boundary, and Tecklenburg says the city and county will not move that boundary to allow more growth.

But honestly, this is about more than Johns Island.

The mayor points out that plans for rapid transit depend on it being available everywhere, that the 526 completion will include bike lanes connecting the West Ashley Greenway and Bikeway through to the James Island Connector and downtown.

Most importantly, it will ease traffic on Savannah Highway and Folly Road, one of the biggest problems facing the community. Been at Folly and Camp roads lately?

By the way, 526 wouldn’t be the most expensive road project in state history (at least until that light rail plan launches) if some people hadn’t delayed it for years with the cheap threat of lawsuits.

Right now, the Legislature is considering a measure that would put a limit the time protesters can hold up projects without putting up cash to fund the cost overruns they cause.

It’s too bad our problems have come down to this, that a very vocal minority can subvert the will of the majority with a piece of paper and a filing fee.

It has forced the city and county into the toll road business. So thanks, guys.

There are problems here, that’s for sure.

State law doesn’t allow the county to ask for both a sales-tax increase and a toll road on the same ballot. And if we have to go through a couple of election cycles, this is dead.

But the county can ask for the sales tax and the city could ask voters for the toll, since the road is completely in Charleston. The city could give that money to the county. It could work.

“We are exploring every idea that comes to us,” says County Council Chairman Elliott Summey. “A lot of people want to see this road, and we’re at a crisis with quality of life because of this traffic.”

Of course, the Department of Transportation could just toll the road, but they aren’t making it easy. Such is the loss of political clout.

This week the State Infrastructure Bank — which is holding our $420 million — will meet to allegedly make some sort of decision. Word is they want to take the money for their own little projects.

Tecklenburg is making that harder to do. He convinced them to let him speak at the meeting and outline his plans. With the city and county working together, we show a good faith effort to get moving. If the SIB takes our money now, it will probably face a lawsuit that hurts their bond rating, costing them millions a year in additional interest.

It’s too bad it’s come to that, but it seems money is the only thing some people care about.

At least until the next hurricane, when the SIB board — if they continue to play politics with this road — will get the blame for all the people stuck on barrier islands during landfall.

So state officials can leave its largest community frozen in gridlock and have blood on their hands during the next monster storm, or simply keep their word.

It shouldn’t take Mayor Tecklenburg and the county to make that an easy decision.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.