County Council holds key to I-526 Beltway

Although I didn’t attend any of the meetings myself, the recent public hearings put on by the Department of Transportation pertaining to the completion of the I-526 Beltway were apparently notable for overwhelming opposition to the project.

Somebody I spoke to recently who attended one of the meetings said he thought the ratio of opponents vs. proponents was probably 9-1.

Not only that, those in support of the project made hasty, choreographed presentations en masse early in the meeting and then sounded a quick retreat in the same manner before being stampeded by the opposition.

The same individual with whom I spoke, who understands these things, made the interesting point that the DOT does not have the ultimate say-so as to whether the project moves forward.

The burden of that decision rests with Charleston County Council. That, I’m advised, is because County Council became the sponsoring agency of the project in 2006 and applied to the S.C. Infrastructure Bank for the start-up funding. The sponsoring agency still has the power to change its mind.

The DOT has been tapped by council to develop and analyze feasibility studies, perhaps tempered by the character of public input. Or perhaps not. The recent public hearings were part of environmental impact statement requirements.

Politics being what it is, it would be entirely within the council’s ability to proceed with the project regardless of opposition. Of course, individual members might pay for it later at election time, but politics is a capricious, fickle business, and sometimes it’s just impossible to gauge the electorate.

Even with what would appear to be such opposition? Well, maybe it’s tempting to view some of these public forums as statistical anomalies, to view them as staging grounds for an extremely unified and angered minority.

Making that assumption, though, may well be in error based on what we understand about the project which, as everyone knows, would involve the condemnation of private lands in a brutal stab through the heart of James Island, tampering with James Island County Park and disruption of wetlands.

What’s most incredible to me is the addition of two extra huge bridges over the Stono River and onto Johns Island, a rural Sea Island that already has two huge bridges. River Road would be accessed in at least two new areas.

You’d have flyovers hither and yon, runoff drainage issues, nonsensical speed limitations, unfathomable scarring of the landscape: all supposedly to alleviate traffic in a model that might not even work.

Am I wrong in suggesting that cities that adopted the beltway concept back in the 1960s and ’70s probably regret it? Of course they regret it. (Where would you rather live: Atlanta, Charlotte or Charleston? How’s that for a rhetorical question?)

Is there not discussion in some of those same types of cities to dismantle at least parts of those beltways and enhance dilution of traffic through pitchfork mechanisms or whatnot?

Proponents of the beltway pooh-pooh those types of models, and I’m not really clear why. What’s there to pooh-pooh about the theory of reducing traffic density if there is a variety of different shunt outlets?

I don’t know what the ultimate answers are and can only really speak from a layman’s perspective. But I do believe this particular project would be the most negligent, wasteful and damaging piece of infrastructure ever built in this community, one from which it would never recover.

For all the great work that South Carolina has accomplished in preservation in the last couple of decades or so, to debauch Johns Island, the Stono and the overall character of this area in such a manner would be inexcusable.

Certainly the money needed for this project could be spent wisely by widening Bohicket and Main roads and improving the interchanges at Maybank, River Road and Highway 17. This would theoretically improve traffic congestion in parts of Johns Island and West Ashley, and further eliminate talk of the equally offensive “Greenway” across Johns Island.

Further improvements in I-26 and implementation of “pitchfork” models where appropriate would, in my opinion anyway, be infinitely preferable to a beltway.

But what do I know? I’m just a simple-minded, nonvisionary, intransigent, do-nothing, so-and-so doctor who only understands root medicine. But I do love Charleston. That’s a certainty.

Don’t listen to me, though, or the DOT for that matter. Keep your fingers on the pulse of County Council. If you don’t like what you’re feeling, you better let them know about it.

Because, honey, they’ve got us all on the string.

By Edward M. Gilbreth

Post and Courier

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