FEATURE ‌ Big Country Road 

John Islanders hope to nix 526

click to enlarge BCDCOG's 2030 Road projection with the Mark Clark shows Folly Road, HWY. 17, HWY. 61, and the extension itself all with failing levels of service - BERKELEY-CHARLESTON-DORCHESTER COUNTY GIS, BCDCOG
  • Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester County GIS, BCDCOG
  • BCDCOG's 2030 Road projection with the Mark Clark shows Folly Road, HWY. 17, HWY. 61, and the extension itself all with failing levels of service

The James Island connector disappears, but doesn't end at Folly Road. When built, the road was intended to eventually keep on going when money became available. Those funds were secured last summer, and $99 million of the $420 million needed to complete the Mark Clark expressway is already in Charleston County's coffers. The road is slated to connect West Ashley and James Island, putting a major interstate across the Stono River, brushing by Riverland Terrace and Headquarters Island and clipping a corner of Johns Island along the way.

Last June, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) voted to approve Charleston County Council's funding request for the extension. Although many now regard the loop's completion as a done deal, concerned residents of Johns Island, Wadmalaw Island, and James Island are not ready to concede to the interstate's reality.

On Monday, Feb. 12, a crowd of just under 300 citizens gathered at St. Johns High School for a "Transportation Improvement Rally" sponsored by the Concerned Citizens of the Sea Islands (CCSI). Posters lined the walls reading "Fix Our Roads First," and attendees had the option of signing a petition and letters to representatives requesting studies to rank and prioritize road projects and improvements.

click to enlarge Citizens sign a petition opposing an I-526 extension - STRATTON LAWRENCE

"I want to know how the Mark Clark is going to help the people of Johns Island," says CCSI co-chair William Saunders. "We might have to stand up a little higher, and do a little more than what we're doing just sitting here at a meeting, but it can be stopped."

After STIB approved the road, Charleston County released a community impact assessment conducted by EDAW, Inc. of Atlanta in July 2006, projecting population growth and road conditions over the next two decades. It found that the Mark Clark would "induce additional growth" that might not occur otherwise. According to CCSI's analysis, EDAW found that the extension would be "detrimental to minorities, longtime residents, and 'cash-poor, land-rich' Johns Island residents, as well as the Island's rural nature."

"Growth is going to occur," says Dan Pennick, interim director of planning for Charleston County. "It's how we manage the change that is the key." He sees the report's results as an indication "that we better do some really good planning to mitigate any negative impacts." Sea Island Habitat for Humanity already struggles to find affordable land on Johns Island to build housing, and as land values continue to rise, poor people won't be able to afford taxes on their property.

At the transportation rally, Marquetta Goodwine, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, garnered laughs and overwhelming applause when she warned the crowd: "Build it and they will come."

"Widening a road to deal with a traffic issue is like loosening your belt to deal with obesity," says Goodwine. She spoke to the value of a healthy, agricultural society rather than "stressed-out, rock-built culture," calling for an assessment that would demonstrate how Gullah will disappear at the hands of increased development.

Legislators have hailed the extension as a "silver bullet" to solve traffic problems in West Ashley, but the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester County of Government's (BCDCOG) recent computer simulations that factor expected growth with road levels of service show that in 2030, none of the major problem roads (Hwys. 61 and 17, Folly Road) will be improved by the Mark Clark, with the exception of a small stretch of Main Road on Johns Island. Several area highways, including I-26 entering and leaving Charleston, currently rate as failing roadways.

"The extension will cost taxpayers half a billion dollars and provide no discernible congestion relief," says Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League (CCL).

"Some roadways will even be made worse because of this project. On top of that, it will accelerate the conversion of Johns Island to a suburb of Charleston. There is no defensible reason to spend this money here when we have so many pressing transportation problems to address elsewhere in the region."

A study released last week by AAA Carolinas identified 2,186 substandard bridges in South Carolina, with the bridge over James Island Creek on Folly Road ranking third worst. SCDOT claims to need $45 million a year for routine bridge maintenance, yet their 2007 budget is only $10 million. CCSI members question the logic of building two new bridges to Johns Island when Bohicket, Maybank, and Main roads already suffer congestion.

James Hutto, director of public works for Charleston County, explains that the money from STIB is a wholly separate entity from the Department of Transportation (DOT). Applications to STIB are for specific projects, and any finances coming to Charleston from their bank are currently allotted for the Mark Clark. However, only $99 million of the projected cost of $420 million has been set aside, and Charleston County Council members can choose not to use the funds if they deem their constituents oppose the project.

Thomas Legare, co-chair of the CCSI, believes that the $420 million estimation is low in order to get construction underway to the point it won't be stopped, and that the actual cost will near $600 million or more. Hutto disagrees, explaining that the estimate included escalations in cost. "It's not a cable-stayed bridge that will require any unique designs," he says. "It'll pretty much look just like the other sections, kind of cookie cutter, if you will. We don't think it'll require any real extravagant design techniques."

Johns Island residents are understandably weary of an interstate to their once rural community. Several residents stood up at the rally to give heartfelt pleas against the project, disbelieving the claims that it would lighten traffic on the Island.

"You don't build an interstate to alleviate traffic," said one attendee. "You build an interstate to develop land." Flyers distributed by CCSI highlighted the damage to wetlands, turtle nesting grounds, and water and light pollution from the road, and many attendees left with banners and bumper stickers advertising CCSI's website (www.no526.com).

County Councilwoman Colleen Condon attended the rally and spoke to the need for further discussion about how to proceed. Council meets on Thurs. March 1 at the Lonnie Hamilton building at 4045 Bridge View Dr. in North Charleston to discuss funding and the future of the project. The meeting is open to the public.

The City of Charleston is also hosting a "community planning workshop" from March 5-10 at the Berkeley Electric Cooperative at 3351 Maybank Hwy., beginning with a March 5 kick-off meeting at 5:30 p.m., with the stated purposed of "studying the areas in and around the Urban Growth Boundary on Johns Island and plan for the area's future."


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