I-526 may be slipping out of reach

Cars leaving Johns Island use the middle lane on Main Road between Highway 17 and the Limehouse bridge Sept. 2.

If the nightmare of Johns Island traffic during our most recent flood didn’t convince you I-526 needs to be finished, nothing will.

You’re just against it, which is fine.

But consider this: All it took was a rainstorm and the island was practically paralyzed — two hours to get on or off. Imagine what would happen in a hurricane evacuation. Or a PGA Championship.

Or after another couple of big ol’ subdivisions are built.

Now, there probably isn’t anyone — outside of developers — who wouldn’t like to see Johns Island remain rural farmland forever, a slice of magical Lowcountry nature that, until the past century, looked much as it always had.

But that place is gone. Sorry, it’s true.

The farms are failing and, outside of the Legares, there are few actual landowners keeping up their end of the bargain. It’s not their fault. Farming isn’t what it used to be, and more and more people are forced to sell off their land to survive.

And that land becomes subdivisions.

Already the traffic is too great. There are only two roads off one of the biggest islands on the East Coast. It’s crazy, as the flooding proved.

“If you want to stick your head in the sand, you can ignore the growth,” says state Rep. Chip Limehouse. “Or you can plan for the future.”

He is absolutely right. But nostalgia and a gallant but useless attempt to preserve the past has just about taken away any option.

If state and local officials don’t act quickly, I-526 will die once again.

The county and state are currently at loggerheads over who will be responsible for cost overruns and defending the lawsuits that will inevitably arise if I-526 moves forward.

It’s been a brilliant strategy by environmentalists — they just threatened to sue, and it inflicted paralysis on the entire process. Didn’t cost a dime.

Meanwhile, the cost of finishing I-526 goes up every day.

Which makes it harder to do. That’s the second brilliant part of the strategy.

Right now, the state Department of Transportation is reassessing the cost of the road — and it could end up topping $700 million, according to some estimates. That would be more expensive than the Ravenel Bridge.

And as the price goes up, the state’s commitment is dropping. Out of that $558 million the State Infrastructure Bank has agreed to spend, only about $420 million has been approved by the state Budget and Control Board.

The rest? Well, let’s just say state officials are eyeing that money hungrily. It’s not gone yet, but if we blink, we might miss it.

Of course, if we do get cheated out of promised money, maybe we can convince all those new Lowcountry residents on Johns Island to bike into town.

If you believe that, Charleston County has a $700 million bridge to sell you.

As Limehouse points out, Savannah Highway, St. Andrew’s Boulevard and Highway 61 are already mired in gridlock every day.

This is the price we pay for being a great place to live. We are now getting Florida’s traffic as well as its weather.

Finishing I-526 is not going to solve all those problems, but it would relieve a lot of pressure — pressure that is growing stronger every day, like it or not.

Would it speed along the development of Johns Island? Sure, unless a certain government body restricted that growth. But as they used to say on the farm, that horse is already out of the barn.

State DOT Chairman Jim Rozier — who, like Limehouse, is a member of the Infrastructure Bank board — says he thinks the road ought to be built. At least some of it.

“If you can’t do it all, do the part from Johns Island to Highway 17,” Rozier says. “I could support that.”

That may be the only choice. As Rozier astutely points out, with costs rising every day, finishing I-526 is only going to get more difficult. Maybe building it in stages is the only play we have left.

Or we could just continue to do nothing, and sit in traffic as the environmentalists bike by us in search of those last unspoiled remnants of what Johns Island once was.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.