City Council approves Riley’s I-526 takeover resolution

During public comment session, James Islander calls Riley a pharaoh

| November 14, 2012
Protesters stood outside City Hall in the rain to oppose the planned extension of Interstate 526 across Johns Island and James Island.
- Paul Bowers
Protesters stood outside City Hall in the rain to oppose the planned extension of Interstate 526 across Johns Island and James Island.

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.


Comments (11)

Showing 1-11 of 11

And it all gets down to whose ox is getting gored again. The majority in any country have never been right about what is best in the long run and this is the reasons mighty nations have fallen throughout history. Now the majority want this highway on Johns Island, and it is doubtful it will result in the loss of our nation, but in the long run the results may not be exactly what they were longing forward to. Many of those who are opposed to the extension ultimately stand to gain from it and probably will as land values increase, assuming they will. I think the opponents of the road show publically vow never to make any money from any economic advantage I-526 might bring. Or, perhaps, secede from the city..

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Posted by And if elected... on November 15, 2012 at 3:09 AM

"The majority in any country have never been right about what is best in the long run..."

Examples, please.

I'll wait.

report 1 of 3 people like this.   
Posted by mat catastrophe on November 15, 2012 at 8:37 AM

Another prime example of how Riley and his cohorts already have a decision made before Council meetings even begin. I thought councilmembers were elected to represent the will of the people, yet when the overwhelming majority of people speaking during the (limited) public input are completely ignored, I feel our elected officials are doing a complete disservice. Granted, I'm not saying that whichever group makes the loudest noise should get their way, but I believe the desires of the REAL people of Charleston (not the developers or Chamber of Commerce) need to be accepted. It's just a complete shame that so many politicians do not have the wisdom (let alone logical thinking capacity) to realize everything about the proposed I-526 extension is a horrible idea that is designed to financially benefit a select few at the expense of the greater public.

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Posted by Golden Ratio on November 15, 2012 at 9:42 AM

And the floodwaters have opened up on downtown Charleston today. In particular at the foot of the James Island Connector there is bad flooding as usual with a sprig tide. This is why the proponents excluded the Connector from the traffic impact study. They don't want residents to know of the increased traffic cutting through historic downtown street and through the C of C campus. Rutledge, Bull, Smith, Pitt, Wentworth, Beaufain, Gadsden, will be blocked off by Charleston police to prevent cars from attempting to drive though the 4' of water. Don't do it! Be straight with the people! Even without the cronic flooding traffic will backup all the way on the Connector and overflow onto other roads, which is why this little secret was kept hidden. Even it is hard to ignore excluding the main artery and proposed terminus of the proposed 526 extension.

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Posted by John Cecil on November 15, 2012 at 10:25 AM

John, to understand how the James Island Connector and Calhoun Street will function with many thousands of more vehicles than at present, one must recognise the importance of cognitive estrangement - or the suspension of disbelief. Even though this is an engineering endeavour with quantifiable outcomes, you can simply choose to ignore the data, dispense with rational thinking, and just believe that it will work. A highway designed for 1972 traffic can handle the present day load, and the next 50 years of population growth, if you just accept that it can. Don't question or doubt, never think - only believe.

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Posted by John Paul Jah on November 15, 2012 at 11:12 AM

so mat - you don't believe in the "Arab Spring"?

report 1 of 1 people like this.   
Posted by Ima Oldman on November 15, 2012 at 11:51 AM

and mat, you're sounding more and more like your brother

report 1 of 1 people like this.   
Posted by Ima Oldman on November 15, 2012 at 11:52 AM

Good one John Paul Jah, "cognitive estrangement".. I wish I could post an image here of the flood prone areas and traffic route off the connector. That would help, although it is really the responsibility of SCDOT to provide an honest assessment by including the most effected road in the project, the JIC. However we can thank Riley for clarifying that the SCDOT preferred alternative is Alt G. :)

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Posted by John Cecil on November 15, 2012 at 5:50 PM

So what if folks in the City Proper or in the upstate supposedly want this road? They won't have to live with a freeway going through their back yard, breathe the polluted air from traffic idling from Calhoun Street to River Road, listen to the engines, or have the oily stormwaters wash up onto their banks. They won't lose their dog park or their swimming pool or their quaint country neighborhoods and the neighbors that live there. Their properties will not lose value with a freeway running through them.

I-526 won't help traffic, it will bring development. Charleston doesn't need more housing units in a glutted market, nor more bottom-feeding service and retail jobs. We need to fix the downtown flooding. We need to capitalize on our burgeoning ability to attract cultured, entrepreneurial youth and experienced retirees to our beautiful town, so let's augment public transportation and green infrastructure. Let's embrace Charleston's future and not stubbornly adhere to misguided commitments to an ugly, expensive, and obsolete travel experience.

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Posted by Katherine Williams on November 18, 2012 at 11:09 AM

"We need to capitalize on our burgeoning ability to attract cultured, entrepreneurial youth...."

Cultured? Have you been downtown on a weekend?

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Posted by mat catastrophe on November 18, 2012 at 12:22 PM

So, Katherine, you want to attract still more people but not improve the infrastructure to accomodate them?
If the cars aren't parked on 526 where will they be parked? 17? Maybank?

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Posted by TROLLSLAYER on November 18, 2012 at 12:44 PM
Showing 1-11 of 11

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