In the past month, you may have read about a road project down here in the Lowcountry called the I-526 extension (a.k.a. Mark Clark Expressway). This proposed $556 million, seven-mile stretch of parkway has gotten a lot of press lately, not because it’s a new idea — some folks have been trying to extend this road across James and Johns Islands for decades — but because there’s been a lot of squabbling between folks like us who have lived on the islands for our entire lives and the politicians and land developers who desperately want this highway extended.
Some time ago, Charleston County Council voted down the I-526 extension, which called for a low-speed parkway across our island, because the public didn’t like it. Since then, the project has returned with a vengeance. The projected cost has increased by about $70 million in the past year, so the State Infrastructure Bank, which is maxed-out and can’t currently cover this cost uptick, voted to dedicate future bonding capacity to bridge the funding gap. Then all of these big politicians, such as Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, got together on TV and said the people need this road now.
In reality, we don’t need it. The S.C. Department of Transportation’s own study says it will save most commuters 36 seconds over current conditions. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources said the design is inadequate and more bridges are needed (up goes the price). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency even said the meek benefits don’t justify the costs or the massive community and environmental impacts. There are too many issues to list here, but you get the idea: This thing is a boondoggle.
We want people in the rest of the state to know that we aren’t all obsessed with spending hundreds of millions in state funds on unnecessary road projects down here. Many of us want our government to do what’s best for the entire state, not just the Lowcountry. We know that I-85 in Greenville and Spartanburg counties is a mess, as is I-26 all the way up to Columbia. These corridors move so much of our freight and so many commuters every day, and are deserving of state funding. In fact, these major transportation arteries make the I-526 extension seem like a half-billion-dollar cul-de-sac.
It isn’t that we islanders are against progress. We know there are problems with our island roads. But this outdated I-526 beltway concept our esteemed representatives have been pushing for 40 years isn’t exactly the picture of “progress.”
We believe most of our local road problems could be solved with smaller, cheaper and more modern solutions such as turn lanes, flyovers, minor road widening and “smart signal” technology for our stoplights. In typical fashion, however, the government wants to use a sledgehammer when a scalpel is needed.
We’re trying hard to get the Transportation Department to focus on what’s right for our great state of South Carolina, but we can’t do it on our own. If you live in the Midlands or Upstate, contact your Transportation commissioner and let him know how he should be spending your money.
Mr. Legare’s family has been farming on Johns Island for almost 300 years; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mr. Saunders is a Korean War veteran and civil rights leader who has lived on Johns Island for more than 70 years; contact him at email@example.com.