Proposed alternative to 526 wants a fair chance 

Coastal Conservation League challenges extension plans

Not even a projected funding shortage and an utter lack of confidence from the state Department of Transportation appears able to derail an extension of 526.

In June, state Transportation Secretary Buck Limehouse told The Post and Courier that the more than $400 million project faced "daunting problems" and that he didn't think he'd live to see it built.

Supporters were unmoved. State House Speaker Bobby Harrell vowed to find the extra money if delays increase the costs.

But, if the money doesn't get them, some well-placed red tape just might, particularly as it relates to the unconventional alternative proposed by the Coastal Conservation League. The group's proposal to improve trouble spots along current commute routes by offering side roads for local traffic has been labeled unfeasible. But the league, a local environmental bulldog, is pressing for legitimate consideration.

While longer, wider highways may be the 20th century response to traffic, the league's new pitch is a throwback to the approach taken by Charleston and other cities hundreds of years ago, says Josh Martin, the league's planning director.

"It's like the way we used to build places and do transportation planning — through a network of streets," he says.

The league's initiative to go beyond indignation and find an alternate solution is commendable, says lawyer Christopher DeScherer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is coordinating with the league on 526.

"A lot of environmental groups will just say no to things," he says.

This spring, the DOT dismissed the league's proposal, as well as a ground-level road the City of Charleston recommended. The state agency did not return calls for this story.

Considering the new road will definitely start and stop at the same two points (the end of the interstate at Savannah Highway and at the beginning of the James Island Connector), the six remaining routes preferred by the state are basically varying degrees of the same plan, DeScherer says.

"The idea is to consider real alternatives that actually accomplish the same thing," he says. "[The DOT is] just offering a different way of drawing the same loop."

Green My Highway

The league plan would target main problem areas on the downtown commutes from West Ashley, Johns Island, and Folly Road. It calls for improving the main roads and adding parallel secondary routes that would be expected to draw local travel.

"We knew that there were a lot of trips that were starting and stopping within the corridor," he says. "This is a way to give these people a choice other than the main road."

There is a challenge to this plan: changing the behavior of drivers who see the quickest route between two points as a straight line. But Martin says if you build drivers an option, they will come.

"When their windshield view includes a grid of streets, they will begin to behave differently," he says.

Martin is the City of Charleston's former planning director, and this proposal pulls a lot from the city's vision for Johns Island development and a pitch Martin made for redevelopment right before he left the city.

Martin estimates the league's proposal would add some $700,000 to local tax rolls.

And then there's the larger price tag. The 526 extension is at $420 million and going up. The league's most recent estimate puts its proposal at $220 million.

The league's plan is getting national attention, too. Environmentalists in Anchorage, Alaska, are trying to replicate the league's success at getting grassroots support and developing a functional alternative to highway construction. Others in Chattanooga, Seattle, and Milwaukee are looking for ways to conform existing highways to the league plan.

The problem may be that transportation officials aren't used to a proposal that doesn't involve widening a road or extending a highway. "It's not the typical plan they're used to seeing," Martin says.

Traditionally, when the transportation department assesses road alternatives, it determines the impact by looking at main roads, like Savannah Highway or Folly Road. But that won't give a clear picture of the impact of the league's network solution, which includes a collection of smaller side roads.

"The DOT has stated it will not treat this alternative any different than any other alternative," DeScherer says. "But there's no effort for a fair comparison."

Both the state Department of Natural Resources and the National Marine Fisheries Service have called for a fair evaluation of the League's proposal.

You Will Listen

But permit requirements a sure to necessitate equal consideration.

A report on the environmental impacts of the 526 extension, a crucial part of the permitting process, is expected by early next year. It will have to include a consideration of what happens if the highway isn't built, DeScherer says.

Depending on the final route, the state will also have to pass stringent requirements from the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Transportation Act, and state environmental coastal standards. Without a fair shake, the league and the environmental law center are prepared to plead their case in each instance.

"At the end of the day, if we feel like they have unlawfully excluded our alternative, we can challenge that determination in court," DeScherer says.

The Town of James Island has also opposed the 526 extension, and the environmentalists are prepared to defend the town's authority.

"We view that as a problem and another reason to look at alternatives that don't pose the same type of obstacles," DeScherer says.

Coastal Conservation League's proposal can be viewed at New Way to Work.

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