In an 11-2 vote Tuesday night, Charleston City Council moved to take over as the sponsor of a $556 million extension project for Interstate 526. Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. proposed the idea, and the only Council members who voted against it were Blake Hallman and William Dudley Gregorie.
In one of the year's rowdier council meetings, more than 40 people spoke during the citizen participation period, with well over three-quarters speaking against the proposed infrastructure project. Before the meeting, protesters stood outside of City Hall in the rain holding "Nix 526" signs.
The project would extend the current western terminus of I-526 from Savannah Highway all the way to the James Island Connector across Johns and James Islands, completing the original plan for the highway that is decades in the making. Advocates for the highway's completion say it will ensure safe evacuation when hurricanes strike and would alleviate traffic snarls on overloaded roads west of the Ashley River (according to one feasibility study, the average West Ashley trip time would be reduced by about 36 seconds). Detractors say the new section of road, with stoplights and a 45 mph speed limit, would do little to fix traffic problems and do a lot to disrupt the islands' marshes and rural communities.
The decision to extend I-526 is currently in the hands of Charleston County Council, where support for the project is mixed. Funding has already been promised from the county's half-cent sales tax money and from the State Infrastructure Bank, though, and Riley wants to move the plan forward.
"This project is needed, the citizens support it overwhelmingly, and the funds are available," Riley said at the meeting Tuesday night. In a July survey of Charleston-area residents conducted by researchers at the University of South Carolina, 72 percent of respondents said they supported the highway proposal. The response was less positive, however, on James Island (63 percent favorable) and Wadmalaw Island (60 percent favorable).
Riley said the vocal opposition to the I-526 project was driven by a "PR machine" and supported by the Coastal Conservation League, which has weighed in heavily against the plan for environmental reasons and because they believe it would do little to fix traffic problems. But at the council meeting, none of the public commenters mentioned an affiliation with the CCL. Many spoke about the potential for road noise in quiet communities and destruction of irreplaceable wetlands. One woman quoted novelist Pat Conroy on the beauty of Lowcountry marshes.
The rhetorical highlight of the evening came from Eugene Platt, a recently re-elected commissioner for the James Island Public Service District. James Island established itself as a town and stopped the City of Charleston's annexations on the island earlier this year, and Platt said Riley's plan was just more meddling from the city. He sent the City Paper a copy of his comments, so we'll just quote them verbatim here:
Mr. Mayor, you bring to mind the pharaoh of ancient Egypt, that pharaoh who continued to harass God's chosen people even after he allowed them to leave Egypt and God had opened the Red Sea for them. Likewise, even after you decided to cease depleting your treasury with Napoleonic efforts to deny the good people of James Island their own town, you continue to harass us with endless efforts to bisect our neighborhoods with a winding strip of concrete no less deadly than a cobra. Just as the Pharaoh's soldiers in their gilded chariots who were drowned in pursuit of the Jews, if you continue your ill-advised pursuit, you will, metaphorically speaking, drown too. Please, Mr. Mayor, ask yourself if your single-minded pursuit of an extended I-526 is worth compromising your legacy and drowning in a sea of contempt, disdain, and disgust.
After the public comment session, which lasted nearly an hour and a half, City Director of Traffic and Transportation Hernan Peña gave a Powerpoint presentation on the merits of the I-526 extension. Peña predicted gridlock on Maybank and Savannah highways if the project were not completed, and he also pointed to studies that showed heavy congestion would soon increase on Folly Road, Wesley Drive, and Main Road.
In contrast with the public commenters, council members spoke overwhelmingly in favor of the project. West Ashley Councilman Bill Moody said he won his race for City Council last year partly because he supported the I-526 project while his opponent opposed it. Councilman Marvin Wagner, who represents outer West Ashley and Johns Island, also said he was compelled by his constituents to support Riley's proposal. "The people in District 5 are saying build the road," Wagner said. "I have virtually no choice."
After three-and-a-half hours of debate, City Council approved Riley's resolution. Now County Council will have to vote to decide whether to approve the highway hand-off.