Extend Interstate 526. Widen Maybank Highway. Build high-density developments. The burgeoning pressure on Johns Island to grow looms larger on a daily basis, and it's carving a deep rift between the residents of Johns, Kiawah, and Seabrook islands.
The proposal to extend 526 to Johns Island is currently undergoing an Environmental Impact Assessment, and Charleston County Council will likely have a proposal for Maybank in hand by late July. But the latest point of contention is the proposal to build a Sea Island Parkway from Maybank Highway to the resort islands of Kiawah and Seabrook. The limited access road would cost somewhere in the ballpark of $155 million and be funded privately, with tolls paying off the investment after the road's completion.
The primary argument for the road centers around safety — proponents point out that both of the current routes to the resorts, River and Bohicket roads, are among the most dangerous in the state. Between 2005 and 2007, 226 injuries and 8 fatalities occurred on the two roadways. Adding a new corridor, they say, would eliminate the need to widen those historic roads (and remove grand live oak trees) by diverting traffic away. Opponents, on the other hand, say that a new four-lane highway would open up Johns Island to future development, destroy wetlands and wildlife habitats, and require using eminent domain to carve a path across private property.
Last Thursday, council hosted a public meeting to gauge sentiments about the new parkway. Over 550 people showed up to Johns Island High School. "We're trying to figure out where we stand," Councilmember Paul Thurmond told the capacity crowd. "A resolution would be for the S.C. Department of Transportation to negotiate with a private company to put a toll road in place. We want to make an informed decision."
In 1995, Charleston County first examined building a toll road from Bohicket Road to the James Island Connector and has revisited the plan in one form or another every few years since. Using Johns Island's projected population growth figures for 2030, the county's most recent study shows that constructing a new four-lane road would do more to reduce traffic congestion than widening existing roads.
In addition, a survey of 346 area residents last August revealed that 66 percent of those polled favored a new corridor, while less than 30 percent favored the options of widening either of the other roads or doing nothing. Safety and protecting grand trees were the top two priorities stated. But according to the Coastal Conservation League's Megan Desrosiers, presenting only those four options is inadequate and misleading.
"We have to maintain our existing roads. We learned on Highway 17 in the ACE Basin that just enforcing the speed limit can make a huge difference in preventing accidents ," she contends. "People say we don't have money for improvements, but a great portion of the half-cent sales tax was intended to go to repaving and adding shoulders to existing roads."
Extending I-526 is projected to cost a minimum of $420 million, while constructing the parkway will cost an estimated $155 million. Widening Maybank will cost between $30 million.
"According to the Johns Island Comprehensive Plan, the island is not supposed to dramatically grow," says Desrosiers. "Spending nearly a billion dollars on Johns Island is crazy when we should be supporting infrastructure in places designated for development."
After last week's meeting was opened to public comment, Bill Saunders of the Concerned Citizens of the Sea Islands — a group working to keep Johns and Wadmalaw Islands rural — expressed suspicion that the resort islands' strong support for the parkway stems from a desire to complete the road for golf's PGA Championships, scheduled to be played on Kiawah in 2012. About two-thirds of the crowd cheered boisterously for over a minute after the comment. Seabrook Island's Mayor Frank McNulty spoke in response to that concern.
"This situation has nothing to do with a golf tournament, or with making it easier for people on Seabrook and Kiawah to get to Charleston. It's got nothing to do with evacuation routes, or even with roads on Johns Island," said McNulty. "The only thing is safety. The roads are too dangerous, there's too many accidents, and too many people have died."
Kiawah Mayor Bill Wert said that one death due to roads with no shoulders is too many, pleading to council to recommend the parkway.
"Study time is over. Action time is at hand," said Wert to the loud boos of much of the crowd.
Several business owners spoke in favor of the parkway, citing concern for their employees who drive through Johns Island to work. Roger Warren, president of the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, said that of his 1,600 employees, 250 are from Johns Island.
"Obviously, we're concerned about the safety of the people who drive out here," Warren said. "There are jobs here for the people of Charleston, and this road will allow them to get to work safely and to get to work quicker."
Council member Thurmond stressed that the parkway decision was in the beginning stages and that a long process will be undertaken before any construction begins. But it wasn't enough to quell dissent. As Coastal Conservation League members distributed handouts describing safe alternatives like lowering speed limits and new turn lanes, one parkway proponent looked to the volunteer and told him to "wipe your ass with it."
Those who stand to lose their land to the road are equally passionate. The proposed route would cut through horse farms and the neighborhoods on Edenvale and Plowground roads.
"What about the people who live on this land?" asked Johns Island resident Pat Luck. "Only 12 percent of Kiawah's homeowners are year-round residents. People on Johns Island don't talk in percentages or years. We talk in generations. Just look at the Glenn McConnell Expressway (in West Ashley) for proof that roads beget other roads. This toll road is not going to benefit the working man. It's going to benefit the people who have the money to get from point A to point B quicker."
As one Johns Island resident pointed out, by 2012, the combination of gasoline and a toll may be out of the budgets of most everyone but Kiawah and Seabrook homeowners, leaving the road empty and underfunded. Budget-strapped workers would save money by continuing to use the old routes, which would remain narrow and no less dangerous than today.
The county will take comments on the parkway until July 7. Click the banner at CharlestonCounty.org to speak your mind.