Exiting or entering the James Island Connector at Folly Road, there's a grassy hill that rises between the lanes. It seems to indicate that the road should keep going somewhere, instead of dead-ending into a gridlock of rush hour traffic.
When Interstate 526 was first conceived in 1972, the plan included a connection between West Ashley and James and Johns islands. Nearly four decades later, that idea may be getting out of its traffic jam.
To a legion of frustrated commuters, a high-speed connection across the Stono River seems like a no-brainer — point A to point B, in record time.
But studies by both the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments and a planning firm hired by extension opponents say extending 526 would do little in the long term to alleviate gridlock on thoroughfares like Savannah Highway and Folly Road.
The state Department of Transportation is currently taking public comment on the extension's potential environmental impact, including two public hearings over the past week and a third Nov. 20 at St. Johns High School on Johns Island. They'll also continue to take comments through their website, www.scdot.org/I526, and at 888-623-4526 through Jan. 9.
DOT representatives have proposed 21 alternatives for how to proceed. Seventeen of those are possible routes for the interstate, two of which cross Johns Island over marsh (the rest include an exit), and most skirt the James Island County Park. The other four alternatives include improving existing roads, creating a new grid of roads to ease congestion, and doing nothing at all.
To date, Charleston County has received $99 million from the State Infrastructure Bank and the promise of the difference for the $420 million project. But opponents like Josh Martin, the Coastal Conservation League's land use director, say it'll likely cost closer to half a billion dollars. He also believes the money is better spent on road projects that take traffic off of already clogged thoroughfares. Until recently, Martin was the City of Charleston's planning director.
"All 526 is doing is just shifting and moving traffic around. It's not untangling the knots," says Martin. "Places like Seattle, Chattanooga, and Boston are tearing these structures down. Do we want to be the last municipality to implement 1970s infrastructure? Why not create places versus destroying places? That's what all these massive infrastructure projects are — they destroy places and rip communities apart."
Martin and the Conservation League endorse the New Way to Work plan (newwaytowork.com), which they created with independent planners Glatting-Jackson. It calls for walkable neighborhoods and grids of roads that encourage people making short trips to avoid the major roads. A grid of parallel, adjacent side streets could reduce car traffic by 56 percent on Savannah Highway, according to their study.
One selling point is the price tag — New Way to Work would cost just $220 million. Martin says the difference could be used for new commuter options like a rail line.
The $420 million secured by Charleston County is specifically allotted for 526, but DOT Project Manager David Kinard says the money could be put toward another project if the county revises their application and the Infrastructure Bank approves it.
At the James Island meeting, the league handed out "No 526" stickers. Many of the attendants were concerned about the road's effect on James Island County Park, where the raised interstate could be both visible and audible.
"Why spend $420 million on part of the problem, not the solution?" says Carol Dotterer, who lives on Ft. Johnson Road. She thinks that the extension will bring more of the same problems — traffic congestion and overdevelopment. "This is an island, you know? It's finite," Dotterer says.
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis (D-West Ashley) is a long-time supporter of completing 526, although "sometimes with mixed emotions," he says. At the meeting, he heard from constituents who were concerned that possible routes could require seizing their property or encroaching on the park.
"Those of us that have pushed hard for the road to help our citizens are certainly not looking to do it at the expense of the county park," he says. "There's pain any time you build a highway. The highway has to go somewhere, and that land is going to be owned by some entity or some person. But we do these things not to make people feel pain, but to promote the community benefit that's hopefully going to come with it."
Holy City Bike Co-op sent out an alert to their members last week that the loop's completion could effect bikers who use the James Island Connector to commute. Several maps at the meeting depicted existing bike lanes, which included all of Folly Road and Riverland Drive, neither of which have them. Kinard explained that these were mislabeled and should be "bicycle routes," but admitted that Folly Road is "no place to ride a bike." He also said that with 21 alternatives (although 17 are routes for 526), DOT has not had time to evaluate an increase in truck traffic through James Island.
Opponents like the Conservation League are hoping the DOT will consider what they say are proven alternatives to improve congestion.
"We should be making the right decision," says the League's Martin. "I'm always of the opinion that spending money just to spend money is not an appropriate action."