The long-running battle over whether or not to complete Interstate 526 heated up again last week following a vote by the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank to approve an additional $138 million in funding for the project. The dispute hits many of the high points in the ongoing struggles between development and growth on one hand, and the preservation of a unique lifestyle and small-town charm on the other. Add to this mix concerns over homes affected by the project, the impact on the environment, and whether or not South Carolina can afford over $500 million for the project, and what you wind up with is an argument that honestly misses the point in almost every conceivable way.
The problem of traffic congestion and growth is nothing new to areas with growing populations. The solution, however, has always been to build new roads or enlarge existing roads. Other solutions exist, but they do not seem to gain much, if any, traction among the people charged with making the decisions that affect the quality of life and the overall infrastructure of the area.
For instance, one solution offered up to help reduce traffic congestion on Charleston area highways is the concept of staggered times for starting work, since it would reduce the amount of traffic that gathers on the highways at the same time every single day. Elliot Auerhahn explains that "the best application of flex time and staggered hours is with large employers when they cause a lot of congestion in traffic."
If you do not recognize Mr. Auerhahn's name, that might be because the one-time transportation director for the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments was talking about the problem of traffic congestion in the June 13, 1977 edition of The News and Courier.
Think about it. Thirty-five years ago, civic planners understood that there had to be solutions beyond simply building more roads and bigger boulevards, yet here we are today, with the Town of Mt. Pleasant widening Highway 17 once again to combat congestion. This was the same solution town leaders employed years ago, and the end result was more growth — and more congestion. Back then, other options were suggested and discarded.
To be fair, there have been talks about public transportation in Mt. Pleasant. Unfortunately, those talks have centered on eliminating CARTA service there, which is an entirely different column. The very idea of public transportation is anathema to much of American life — and certainly no less here in South Carolina (or even Charleston, supposedly the most "liberal" city in the state). The reasons for this are as much social, cultural, and geographic as they are political or economic. Americans love their cars. They represent a "freedom" that in some tangible way is threatened by the mere suggestion that, maybe, you should take the bus once in awhile.
As much as the public transportation argument rankles so many in the area, there is the alternative of employer-driven carpooling or even transportation provided by employers. This idea goes back to the 1977 news article on traffic, but it is doubtful that any businesses ever implemented it then or would today even if they received incentives.
As for staggered starting schedules at local businesses, this is an issue largely dependent on individual employers. There are some places where this clearly would not work (any plant at which safety and functionality depend on an orderly shift change, for instance), but as there is no small percentage of work done in this area in offices, there is not much reason to believe that 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. is any better or worse than 9 a.m. to 6 a.m. or 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. or any other eight hour block of working time. In America today, there is no room for a healthy debate on whether or not we even need to rethink the 40-hour work week (again, a different column entirely).
These same problems, with the same debates and the same poor choices leading to another cycle of problems, have dominated the Charleston area's infrastructure policy since most of you reading the City Paper have been alive, or longer. Without giving more than lip service to alternate policies and practices, they will continue to dominate long after we are all gone. This is neither necessary nor desirable. There is no better time than now to consider serious alternatives to the area's infrastructure problems.
Mat Catastrophe is a multimedia geek who is currently co-authoring a book called Arguing on the Internet. He is also the owner of several satirical "new media" companies.