Traffic and parking are consistently among the top issues we put forth to our local legislators, likely because a fifth of the average American's income is spent on transportation. Getting around costs more than our expenditures on food and health care combined, and many of us spend hours each day in the confines of an automobile.
How we move from place to place shapes the character of a city, and many in the Lowcountry are worried that extending the 526 belt-line will only push us further toward the suburban-gridlock models of Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., cities known more for their traffic and sprawl than cozy walkability.
Interstates sprung from a post-World War II ideal of wide, free-flowing highways, spurring business, efficiency, and growth. As that occurred, we continued to make the roads bigger. After a road is widened, there's an immediate payoff: reduced travel time for drivers. This reduction in turn encourages commuters to work further from home and buy an extra car, adding another vehicle to the soon-to-be-crowded roadways. The problems then compound. Thoroughfares like Sam Rittenberg in West Ashley and Rivers Avenue in North Charleston are prime examples — they've attracted plenty of corporate restaurants and big-box retailers, but they're hardly the place most people want to live. If you widen it, the cars will come, and the traffic problem grows.
Being pedestrian-friendly is at the heart of the "live-work-play" communities that developers have embraced of late, from I'On to the new Central Mount Pleasant project on Hungryneck Boulevard. But what about the majority of us in Charleston, living in those post-WW II-style suburbs?
Where the Blacktop Ends
The Coastal Conservation League and the Concerned Citizens of the Sea Islands recently hired transportation engineering firm Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin to analyze the impact of a 526 extension on the surrounding areas. Over five days, they gathered public input from residents, seeking to find alternatives that would alleviate the gridlock on Folly Road, Savannah Highway, and on and off Johns Island, without building an expensive new interstate. They found that spreading out the traffic load by improving existing roadways and encouraging multiple route options would lead to a traffic reduction and more livable space. One suggestion was to remove the entrance ramps around the intersection of Highways 17 and 61 in West Ashley, creating multiple points of entry onto each road. The plan would make room for a waterfront park that would slow traffic and improve the area for residents on both sides of the river.
"One of the things we're questioning here is the magic of 526 being a circle, and this connection being an interstate at all," says Paul Moore, a transportation planner with Glatting Jackson. "If you take apart all the elements, it's two bridges and a street connection to Maybank Highway. There's validity to each of those, but why are we so married to 'It's a loop?'"
For Carl Blum, a 22-year Johns Island resident who works at Bosch by the airport, his support for the extension is a matter of access.
"We're getting jammed up as they build more houses. To get home (to Brownsville Road) from Highway 17 at 5 o'clock takes an hour," he says.
Moore agrees that a better street network on Johns Island is crucial to curing gridlock, especially when you consider that history shows interstates spur even more development and ultimately more traffic. "Developers aren't dumb," says Moore. "They realize there is now cheaper land further out, and the interstate creates demand and induces more traffic."
Organizations like the Concerned Citizens of the Sea Islands worry about the loss of Johns Island's rural nature that will come with increasing land values and development. As property taxes increase, farming becomes less economically viable and families are forced to sell land they've held for generations. Blum says that tomato farms and cow pastures surrounded his property a decade ago, but now that land sits idle. Still, he supports a "Cross Island Expressway" that would facilitate traffic between the Kiawah and Seabrook resort communities and downtown.
Andy Capelli, a retiree from Staten Island who has lived on Kiawah since 2000, says he sees the traffic on Johns Island worsening every day, especially during shift changes at the resorts. He favors building the 526 extension as a component of a larger project to improve traffic on the island.
"You've got 1,000 or more cars moving down single lane roads that are not capable of handling that volume," says Capelli. "I'm in favor of keeping Johns Island rural through conservation funding and protecting open space, but I sat in gridlock for 20 years, and that's why I'm here."
Why Don't We Do It in the Road
The Department of Transportation is beginning an environmental impact study on the $420 million extension project now, which is expected to take around 36 months. The State Infrastructure Bank has committed to fully funding the cost of the interstate, and DOT Project Manager David Kinard expects construction to begin in mid-2010. He says they'll take alternative recommendations into account, and the Coastal Conservation League's position "will be considered just like any other organization out there."
Among the roughly 200 citizens who participated in last week's discussions, a few asked if the project would be pedestrian friendly. Although it's technically not allowed, hundreds of bicyclists and joggers utilize the James Island Connector daily. Attaching an interstate and the truck traffic that comes with it could end that, compromising bicycle accessibility to downtown from James Island. It could also generate a "car cannon" of traffic that will dump onto Calhoun Streets and Lockwood Drive, neither of which can be widened further.
The solution, according to the engineers at Glatting Jackson, is in altering our antiquated perceptions about how a city should function. Successful cities minimize travel, the firm argues, embracing congestion and density while finding ways to avoid gridlock.
"The only cities that have solved congestion are places like Detroit, where the economy has tanked and everybody has left," says transportation planner Moore. "We have to think about moving people instead of cars."
Downtown Charleston could arguably be considered "congested," but moving through it — by foot, bike, or car — is rarely unpleasant. Moore argues that for a city to develop a viable transit system, congestion and the expensive parking it generates must precede it, or only those without another option will utilize public transport.
Many 526 proponents tout the need for additional hurricane evacuation routes, but the Lowcountry's three main escape routes would remain Highway 17 North, South, and I-26. "With the extension, drivers would just have another place to park and wait," says Moore.
Cities like Seattle, Chattanooga, and Portland have all recently dismantled major highways in favor of revitalization projects. If the 526 extension is not built, the land around the entrance to the Connector could easily be converted into a town center area for James Island. They also suggest developing neighborhood "nodes" along Savannah Highway, akin to Avondale, with alternate ways of traveling between them through neighborhoods.
The engineers argue that by encouraging alternate routes and placing trees in medians, traffic would be encouraged to slow down through neighborhoods like those along Folly Road and drivers would have more options, eliminating bottleneck traffic jams like the daily occurrence exiting the Connector on James Island.
When we think "livability," it's the pleasant, slow-moving communities we find ourselves in once we're off the eight-lane frustration-and-wreck-inducing highways. But what if we never had to get on them in the first place?
To see detailed overhead maps of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin's recommendations for easing traffic west of the Ashley, visit www.no526.com.