As Thomas Legare was walking up to the podium on April 19, no one would have been surprised if he had taken a victory lap. After all, Charleston County Council had just voted down a state plan to link Interstate 526 to the James Island Connector. Legare has spent years fighting the proposal by organizing opposition on rural Johns Island. But as he stood behind the podium, he wasn't patting himself on the back; he was leaning on his hands, asking for road improvements — real road improvements.
"Now is the time. Let's look at the improvements we all want to see made," he said. Those improvements include work on the intersection at Highway 17 and Main Road and at every major intersection on Johns Island. "We go out there for $35,000, put up new lights, and stripe the road, and we solve part of the traffic problem."
There's no doubt that the effort of residents like Legare and groups like the environmentalists at the nonprofit Coastal Conservation League (CCL) helped convince county officials to turn against the eight-mile highway four decades in the making. The road divided the community between true believers who saw it as a traffic solution and opponents convinced it was a money pit and a harbinger of even greater suburban congestion.
This process of getting from "build it" to "don't build it" has been grueling. The state's various proposals over the last five years took slightly different routes to complete the same loop. Eventually, the state decided to support the city's suggestions to turn the highway into a 35 mph parkway. But opponents were still not satisfied. And with state estimates suggesting the road would cut less than two minutes off of commute times, it was quite difficult to justify the plan's $489 million price tag.
In the end, the council's decision to reject the project may end up costing Charleston County nearly $12 million, money that the state has already spent. However, the controversy has provided county officials and residents with a new appreciation for alternatives to the traditional interstate, says Kate Parks, a project manager with CCL.
"You'd naturally assume that a highway would solve problems," she says. "This process defied the natural assumption and educated a whole lot of people in the process."
Even though the highway is no longer in the works, commuting routes will still need improvements on the islands and in West Ashley. Development will continue unabated until the traffic reaches a true choking point — and we're not there yet, says Ryan Castle, government affairs director for the Charleston Trident Association of Realtors. "The key is that we not abandon any options," says Castle.
The viability of an alternative — any alternative — has improved following county council's decision. "It takes the energy off of 526 and gives everyone the ability to step back and consider what will work," Parks says. "It's not that CCL's plan is better than it was three years ago. It's that there's this realization that heavy infrastructure is not what we need."
CCL's "A New Way to Work" came up more than once in the County Council's recent debate. The proposal focuses on building interconnected roads that would support local traffic and leave the main roads for commuters. Here's how it would work: If drivers are trying to get from I-526 to the peninsula, they'd take Savannah Highway. But if they are trying to get from 526 to Wappoo Road, they'd dodge traffic and take a side street. The city plans to create a new network of roads on Johns Island in order to divert drivers away from isolated neighborhoods and pull some future traffic off of Maybank Highway.
Surprisingly, the most important improvements addressing traffic congestion west of the Ashley River could come from east of the Ashley River. Advocates argue attention should focus on the Interstate 26 corridor.
"Before the 526 debate started, we were more focused on real estate development — that was the economic future for Johns Island and that was the economic future for Charleston County," says Parks. "Boeing came last year, and we realized that real estate is not our economic future. We can have viable industries. Supporting the economy doesn't just mean building homes anymore."
A focus on I-26 would include improving the roadways in that area, but also supporting mass transit opportunities, including passenger rail.
"When you say mass transit, is that streetcars? Is that bus? Is that commuter rail? Is that light rail? Let's put our resources there because there are more benefits in that conversation," says Parks, noting the first step is a Mass Transit Master Plan. "We don't want to go from one controversial project to another, so we need to use this opportunity to listen to what the public has said so far and maximize the benefits where we can."
Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. has long dreamed of rail cars shuttling commuters from Summerville, Moncks Corner, and North Charleston down to peninsula offices. A 2006 estimate put the cost for this service at $46 million. The price tag has likely increased since then, but it should fall well under the $489 million for the 526 plan, plus it should have the added benefit of attracting development where municipal and regional planners want to see it.
Of course, the state and the Department of Transportation still need convincing. Just getting bike lanes on wide local roads appears to confound traffic engineers in Columbia, and the state has woefully ignored passenger rail for years while North Carolina and Georgia aggressively pursued train travel.
Parks notes the State Infrastructure Bank, the state agency that would have footed the bill for the 526 project, can spend its money on a wide variety of infrastructure improvements, including rail. She argues, "We can say, '526 isn't our priority, but here is what is.' "
The Association of Realtors recently took a group of local officials to Charlotte to look at the larger metropolitan area's transportation efforts. Castle says we're about two decades behind where Charlotte was, both in population and infrastructure, including commuter rail. He says the lesson is that you need a mix of transportation solutions.
"It's not transit. It's not building roads," he says. "It's both — as fast as you can."