Commentary: The future was Tuesday: Port traffic a mere preview

“Making predictions is very difficult, especially about the future.”

– Yogi Berra

Yogi Berra was right most of the time. But Tuesday’s massive traffic jam provided a preview of a future that is not difficult to predict. Apparently, a three-day weekend aligned with a change in port operations to produce what The Post and Courier called “traffic chaos” in North Charleston. To paraphrase Al Jolson, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

In just four years, Boeing and its suppliers will be fully up and running, more containerized cargo will arrive through a wider Panama Canal, a major wind turbine testing facility at the Navy Base will be operating and residential and commercial development will increase as the economy recovers. What this means for the future is crystal clear. Tuesday’s “traffic chaos” will no longer be worthy of front page coverage. It will be a part of everyday life, unless we take steps today to prevent it.

So far, our local elected officials and business leaders have either avoided hard transportation funding choices or, worse, are blocking projects that are essential to the region and the state. In December, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Mayor Joe Riley and the Charleston Chamber of Commerce hosted a policy forum emphasizing the importance of smart infrastructure investment to maintain America’s economic competitiveness and to enhance our quality of life. Bold statements ensued in support of the proposition, but actions speak louder than words. Mayor Riley is the primary proponent of extending I-526 to Johns Island, at a cost of almost half a billion dollars.

It is crucial that we understand what this means for the region and state. I-526 will use all of the money available in the State Infrastructure Bank — every penny. There will be no funding left for projects needed to accommodate Boeing and its suppliers. There will be nothing left for badly needed rail improvements for the port. There will be nothing to begin a light rail line along I-26, as our region’s population approaches 750,000. In short, funding I-526 ensures that Tuesday’s traffic chaos will be the region’s future.

Mayor Riley is by no means alone in having failed to advance an infrastructure agenda that is in the best interest of the region. The other forum sponsor, the Metro Chamber of Commerce has been silent on the I-526 vs. I-26 debate, despite the fact that efficient and safe transportation ranks as one of the most important components of an economically successful region.

The governmental body with the power to rectify the 526 debacle is Charleston County Council. It sponsored the application to the infrastructure bank and has already received $99 million, of which it has spent roughly $20 million on consultants and right-of-way. The infrastructure bank has promised an additional $320 million.

Two facts are critical. First, the funding is a minimum of $90 million short, and the county has no idea where the rest will come from. Second, the infrastructure bank approved the $320 million request before the economic downturn. Today, the repayment stream has been reduced, elevating the financial risk for the state. It is difficult to imagine anyone failing to grasp the significance of the I-526 boondoggle — the blunder of tying up hundreds of millions of dollars for a road that will save a few minutes from some local commutes, that two out of three commenters during the public hearings opposed and, most pointedly, that there is not enough money to build even if it had broad support.

Politicians have said if they don’t spend the money on I-526, it will go to Greenville or Florence. But two Charleston legislators control the majority of infrastructure bank appointments, Sen. Glenn McConnell and Rep. Bobby Harrell. They can direct their appointees to shift the 526 funds to projects along the I-26 corridor.

But herein lies a problem — two legislators control South Carolina’s primary source of transportation dollars. Who could blame them for trying to use those funds for projects they believe their constituents support? But two local legislators should not dictate transportation priorities for the entire state.

Smart infrastructure investment means, first and foremost, understanding that we are making choices, that we can’t build every project on every constituency’s wish list. Leadership entails having the courage to make the case for investments that are best for the region and the state, regardless of the political fallout.

As new council members take office, governors are inaugurated and candidates announce their intentions, it is up to the public to hold our representatives accountable for redirecting I-526 funding and reforming the way transportation investment is made in South Carolina. That is the only way we can ensure that Tuesday’s traffic chaos is not an accurate prediction of our future.

Dana Beach is executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.

Post and Courier

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