The world was buzzing last week about the end of the world, but Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. was focused on another tragedy in the making: a West Ashley commute without an expanded Interstate 526.
The mayor's hysterics signalled a turn in the debate over a $489 million plan to send the interstate from Savannah Highway to the James Island Connector. At a Charleston County Council meeting last week, Riley said existing roads would be a nightmare without the new highway. Not scary enough? The mayor went on to predict gruesome car accidents as traffic backs up. He also warned that dead bodies will be floating in the waters if the road isn't built, noting that people would rather face a hurricane than sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on an evacuation route. "The decision you make on this highway will determine whether people live or die," Riley said.
There's not a lot going for the road. Traffic studies have suggested motorists won't even notice a difference in their commute. The project is already $69 million over budget and that number will likely rise. And then there's the public opposition, as thousands have flocked to hearings to lambast the plan. With no practical justification, growing public opposition, and a budget already in the red, it's no wonder that the only card left for Mayor Riley and others is to get as doomy and gloomy as Family Radio's Harold Camping.
Oh, and it's working.
When Charleston County Council voted 5-3 last month to stop the 526 project, Councilman Henry Darby made the point that he usually votes in lockstep with Chairman Teddie Pryor, an ardent I-526 supporter. On this occasion, Darby voted against the project because he believed it would destroy historically African-American communities in the area.
Last week, it was Darby who revived the issue, returning to Pryor's camp as he argued the county could find a plan for the highway that worked for residents. "There is a long history of compromise," he said. "We have a tradition of compromise. This is going to be a win-win situation."
But many residents believe that any new route is a no-win situation that will drive more development to Johns Island without addressing existing traffic issues. Instead, they're calling for improvements to current roads and intersections. In April, it appeared they'd been successful. That is, until earlier this month when the State Infrastructure Bank, the financing arm for the state's large transportation projects, told County Council members that the county would have to pay back the $11.6 million that had already been spent by the state for design work and right-of-way acquisition on the project.
The large crowd at last week's meeting included a mix of anti-526 and pro-526 residents — and everyone was wearing a sticker. Some had a slash cutting through "526," indicating opposition. Others had various stickers indicating support for the highway. There was a green one with "GO" in big letters, as well as others suggesting the county "finish" or "complete" the controversial highway. Folks wearing the same badge sat together. At one point, two neighbors on opposite sides of the issue passed in the hall, telling each other, "You're wearing the wrong sticker."
The council voted 5-3 to revive the project and begin negotiations. Council members Colleen Condon, Dickie Schweers, and Joe Qualey opposed the motion.
Councilman Vic Rawl, who has supported bringing the highway to Johns Island at the very least, said this isn't a vote for completion. He said the previous vote closed the book and led the state to demand payment.
"We can negotiate anything," he said, from building nothing to completing the highway. "What we are doing is not necessarily changing the position of council. We're investigating any and all opportunities."
Pryor's new proposal, which he hopes to refine and present to council soon, would extend the interstate from West Ashley to Maybank Highway. It would be a smaller project — Pryor puts the cost at $200 million — but it's hard to imagine it will win state support, let alone address the concerns of residents.
Late last year, the state Department of Transportation refused efforts to cut the project in half, noting it wouldn't resolve the traffic woes that necessitate the roadwork in the first place. Pryor's plan to create an interchange at Maybank would also divert from the state's proposal for two exits on Johns Island that would run to River Road. According to the DOT's environmental impact study, a single Maybank intersection wouldn't work with the low-speed parkway design meant to support bike and pedestrian access.
If a Maybank exit was created, the DOT noted it would require additional turn lanes and road widening for the road to reach a minimally acceptable level of service. That means the cost would climb for materials and construction while the positive impacts of the work continue to diminish.
While it may be hard to support a bad project, it may take more courage to oppose a project when you're essentially being called a killer by the Lowcountry's most powerful politician.
Pryor claims that, in order to pay back the state, county jobs and library hours could be on the chopping block. Last week, Rawl told the crowd that the county has to make good on this road or risk angering credit agencies, endangering any future road or park projects. And then there's Mayor Riley, who couldn't get to the carnage fast enough.
Riley, who ironically called complaints about the project "unfair and a bit disingenuous," began his comments with an analogy about choke points, heart attacks, and clogged arteries. "The arteries were not clogged with plaque," he said. "They were clogged with piled-up vehicles and traffic jams and smashed faces and injured necks and killed people and all that you have with traffic congestion."
Then, just weeks before hurricane season, Riley turned his doomsday scenario to the coast. "Heaven forbid there is the 1893 hurricane, but it's likely there will be a time that there will be — that's the one that comes south of Charleston," he said. "That puts Wadmalaw, Johns Island, Kiawah, and Seabrook where McClellanville was in Hugo. There will not be a piece of land on Wadmalaw or Johns Island that won't be covered with water in a hurricane like that.
"When that bad hurricane comes and people on Wadmalaw and Johns Island decide to stay home because they can't leave — the day after, their bodies are found. This decision is in your hands."
So the mayor got a bit dramatic with his analogies, but, obviously, he understands that there is a limit to our calls for safety. Residents could spend their whole lives at home in order to avoid ever being in a car accident, but that's not reasonable. You could build an eight-lane highway to make sure that every resident is dragged off of the Sea Islands, but that's not reasonable.
The decision in front of Charleston County Council is how much road is too much road. That decision will have to be made with little deference for Riley's hysterics. But, as Lady MacBeth can attest: whether it's real or imagined, it's hard to get blood off your hands.