Kiawah resident Paul Roberts argues that the best way to improve traffic safety on Johns Island is to build a new road across the middle of the island, through what he describes as “mostly empty land.” Roberts fails to understand that this “empty land,” with forests, wetlands, pastures and farm fields, is precisely what Johns Island residents have fought to protect over the past three decades. Because of their efforts, and because of the courage of past and present County Councils, the island retains its unique character and history.
This may be a blur to some as they cross the island at a minimum of 45 miles per hour, but the island’s beauty and authenticity today continue to inspire Johns Islanders, black and white, long-time residents and new arrivals, to oppose the expressway, which Roberts has dubbed a “greenway,” with the same passion they brought to earlier protection campaigns.
One critical point Roberts fails to mention is that the expressway was deemed to be helpful by the engineering firm LPA for congestion relief only if it is not tolled and if Interstate 526 is extended. Neither of these conditions is certain. Further, the total cost of both projects exceeds half a billion dollars. This begs the question: With the pressing transportation challenges we face in a growing region, is it reasonable, prudent and equitable to devote such a large quantity of transportation funds to saving a few minutes on a trip from Kiawah to Costco, a benefit Roberts recently noted on the Savage Report?
Not only is this expressway through “mostly empty land” detrimental to Johns Island, it also has regional consequences. There are many places in Charleston County where more than half of a billion dollars could alleviate traffic congestion, improve safety and invest in infrastructure suitable for supporting slated industrial growth. In a few years, the new Boeing plant will open, with 4,000 new employees; the wind turbine drive train testing facility at the Clemson Restoration Institute will begin operation; spin-off business from both facilities will be in the works; the new port terminal will be complete, and other large projects along I-26 from the Neck to Summerville will come on line. Every morning and evening, thousands of commuters lose time in traffic on the region’s most congested interstate.
The safety problem on Johns Island is real and Roberts and his allies emphasize the fact that lives have been lost. However, the tragic losses of life on Bohicket and River roads shouldn’t be used to advance a road project that is unnecessary and destructive to the community and the environment.
Just in the past week we have heard about the recent crackdown on speeding and reckless driving along the stretch of I-26 north of Summerville. For the same reasons, this is precisely the approach needed on Johns Island. According to data from the Department of Public Safety, half of the fatal accidents on Maybank, River or Bohicket Roads from 2004-2009 are due to speeding or driving under the influence.
Unfortunately, the desire for this road by its proponents has clouded the safety discussion. This engineering study was set in its trajectory toward an expressway from the beginning: Studying alignments does not suggest in name or intent that safety improvements would be more than a secondary recommendation. Thankfully, County Council elevated these safety proposals to advance the true needs of Johns Islanders rather than the wants of some on Kiawah and Seabrook.
Members of County Council chose last Thursday to see Johns Island for what is truly is: a place that residents have chosen to live and worked to protect. Mr. Roberts argues that the expressway saves Johns Island from a path toward development like other congested urban areas. For the families who would lose their land and for residents who have fought to protect Johns Island from development-inducing infrastructure and land use choices, this road does not save Johns Island from anything. The members of County Council have shown that they see the Johns Islanders’ vision. Tonight they have the opportunity to respond to the needs of Johns Island residents by making a choice that reflects their future land use plan, echoes the voice of the residents and moves the best option forward.
Kate Parks is a project manager for the Coastal Conservation League.