Panning I-526 extension plans 

Light rail pitch widens highway debate

The proposed route for the extension of Interstate 526 is pretty much what you'd expect, but it will face a new alternative from opponents: light rail.

On July 28, the Department of Transportation is expected to unveil the route it has settled on. It includes two River Road exits on Johns Island, as well as James Island intersections at Riverland Drive and Folly Road.

The DOT is going to face the same argument from environmentalists. They want less highway and more interconnected routes to relieve main roads. The challenge to pavement-as-usual also includes a new pitch for a light rail system to run up the Lowcountry's spine with 12 stops from Upper King Street to Summerville, including the airport.

Piggy-backing on a long-term regional commuter rail plan and private development proposals along the existing tracks, the Coastal Conservation League argues that its approach would address the transportation problem for commuters and residents where they work and live, as opposed to taking that traffic, via concrete and pavement, over rural sea island communities.

Considering the down economy, necessary road improvements to facilitate Boeing's North Charleston plant, and a growing interest in alternative transportation, CCL hopes Charleston County will reconsider, says CCL Project Manager Kate Parks.

"The story has changed, the economy has changed, and the resources have changed," she says.

Light rail is an ambitious, expensive idea, but the county is likely already in the hole on the highway extension — previous estimates were at $420 million, but that number may climb with the final proposal. Parks notes that federal resources for rail programs may be able to keep the local and state costs in the same ballpark.

CCL will continue to lobby county leaders to consider its alternative. Parks is hopeful that the state Department of Natural Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service may offer support for a fresh look at their alternative. Both agencies previously recommended that the DOT consider CCL's approach.

The nonprofit had previously suggested a cheaper alternative to the highway that would create a grid system to meet growing traffic demands on Johns Island. Local traffic in West Ashley would also shift to side streets, leaving the arteries for commuters.

Efforts to expand the proposal to include passenger trains will likely face the same hurdle CCL met last time: a state transportation department wholly unprepared to evaluate an alternative proposal that doesn't involve widening a road or putting in an overpass.

DOT Project Manager David Kinard said department staff will not comment on the extension plans until the July 28 public presentation.

The public can comment on the DOT's highway extension plan and receive more information at two forums at Burke High School on Aug. 31 and Sept. 2 beginning at 5 p.m. in the cafeteria.

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