Commentary: I-526 failed to consider data and citizens’ input

The South Carolina Department of Transportation’s Mark Clark Expressway Draft Environmental Impact Statement published last July is 500 pages long. Its appendices and public comments add 1,500 more pages.

This study recommends the construction of a four-lane parkway from the Savannah Highway end of I-526 to the Folly Road end of the James Island Expressway.

This roadway, first proposed in the early 1970s, would require that two huge new bridges be built across the Stono River — near the two huge bridges already built across the Stono.

Most people don’t have time to even skim the study. But SCDOT’s proposed extension is an issue I care about a lot, so I’ve spent time trying to understand how SCDOT reached its conclusion.

Here are the two most important things I’ve learned.

First, the main outcome of this study was decided before the first bit of data was collected, before the first citizen’s comment was heard.

It was decided by SCDOT’s definition of the study’s purpose: “to increase the capacity of the regional transportation system, improve safety, and enhance mobility to and from the West Ashley, Johns Island and James Island areas.”

It turns out that by “regional transportation system,” SCDOT really means the existing section of I-526 and the James Island Expressway. All of the study’s 39 alternatives that would not connect these two roads (“increase their capacity”) are quickly dismissed because “they fail to meet the need and purpose of the proposed Mark Clark Expressway project.”

In short, SCDOT defined the problem in a way that the only acceptable solution was building a road that connects I-526 and the James Island Expressway. All other solutions — mass transit, improving problem intersections, the Coastal Conservation League’s “New Way to Work” plan, and no build — were rejected with little or no analysis because they didn’t connect these two existing expressways.

SCDOT goes on to reduce the remaining alternatives to seven, but these seven are only slight variations of one “alternative” — building a four-lane highway and two enormous bridges that extend I-526 from Savannah Highway through Johns Island to James Island.

SCDOT’s preferred recommendation was strongly opposed by 90 percent of those who spoke at the overflowing James and Johns Island public hearings. Most preferred the no-build option or significant improvements to major problem intersections.

At no point does SCDOT do what any good business would do — analyze the cost-effectiveness of all possible alternatives. It just eliminates the least costly alternatives by an arbitrary definition.

The second and most important thing I learned is that SCDOT’s study did not even begin to do what most Charleston County residents and taxpayers want our government to do: identify our most serious traffic problems and propose cost-effective solutions.

The study says nothing about the continuous congestion along I-26 … or the truly dangerous, backed-up I-526 exit at Glenn McConnell Parkway … or the heavy truck traffic between the ports and I-26 … or the effects of Boeing’s new plant on I-26.

For example, instead of evaluating the cost-effectiveness of rail solutions in the high traffic I-26 corridor (downtown Charleston to Summerville), SCDOT focuses on proving that commuter and light rail connections between Savannah Highway and James Island would have few riders and produce little revenue.

Who would have guessed?

I understand that SCDOT was not required by its contract with Charleston County to look at the big picture, but for heaven’s sake, someone needs to. And that someone is Charleston County Council.

We South Carolinians pride ourselves on being financially conservative and responsible. SCDOT has recommended to Charleston County Council that we spend half a billion dollars — the only large pot of transportation money our state is likely to have for at least the next decade — on connecting Savannah Highway and James Island. This is not responsible.

What would be responsible and benefit our entire state’s economy would be to improve the flow of transportation along the I-26 corridor. This is where the greatest congestion is. This is where the most people live and work. This is South Carolina’s most important economic gateway.

I understand that the $420 million the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank has allocated to Charleston County is designated for extending I-526.

But if in this time of scarce resources, our county officials, our new governor, our legislative leaders, and the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank can’t figure out how to reallocate this money so we can solve a giant problem that affects the whole state — rather than blindly completing a 40-year-old plan for a local horseshoe that is opposed by those it supposedly helps — we are in serious trouble.

Rod Welch

Stone Post Road

James Island

Post and Courier

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