Battle over Charleston road project's fate spotlights local/state divide
Supporters of the long-planned project to extend Interstate 526 through James and Johns Islands argue it needs to get done to ease traffic snarls in the rapidly growing city.
The South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank board last week voted down a proposal to extend the deadline to give more time to Charleston County to come up with matching funds, effectively killing the project, at least for now.
The 4-1 vote was derided by supporters of the project, but welcomed by opponents, including conservationists who said an extension would mean more development on the islands. The county had to promise $300 million toward the $720 million project, but was unable to do so by a March 30 deadline.
Consultant Jim Rozier, who leads the newly established Charleston County Voters for Transportation, said in an email statement that the vote proved no solution will be found to fix the city’s traffic “if we continue to wait on Columbia.”
“It's never been more clear that we have to take matters into our own hands,” Rozier, a former chairman of the South Carolina Department of Transportation, told TI News Daily. “We must do something about the out-of-control traffic we experience every day here in Charleston.”
He helped launch a “Complete the Penny Tax” campaign to find enough signatures to put the issue of raising the current half-cent sales tax to a referendum in November.
Charleston County Council can put the increase directly on the Nov. 8 ballot, but members deferred a vote last week so they can gauge opinion on how the public wants to spend the expected $2.1 billion raised.
It is not certain the I-526 project will be on that list of preferred projects after the planned series of public meetings, but supporters believe it has a much better chance of being revived, should the tax increase be introduced.
In a statement issued after the infrastructure bank board voted to withdraw the $420 million commitment to help fund the road extension, Charleston Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Bryan Derreberry said: “We are extremely disappointed in the decision.
“The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce has been a strong proponent for the completion of I-526 for many years,” Derreberry said. “Our region is now growing at an estimated 48 people per day, according to U.S. Census estimates. The West Ashley, James Island and Johns Island areas already have heavy traffic congestion, and it is crucial that we find transportation solutions.”
Charleston's metropolitan area is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, with an estimated 63,000 moving to the area between 2010 and 2014. Many of those living in the collar counties commute into the city.
It has put massive pressure on the road system, where only a small percentage of workers use public transportation. The American Public Transport Association reports a daily average ridership of just 15,000 in the last quarter of 2015, and the numbers are dropping.
Robin Welch, a founder of the opposition group Nix 526, told the Post and Courier last week that she was delighted with the outcome after years of fighting. Members of Welch's group have said the new road would harm the environment and the quality of life on the islands, and would spur still more development.
The Coastal Conservation League’s position is that it would support the half-cent tax hike as long as the list of projects supports some public transportation projects.
Rhett Reidenbach, president of the Reveer group, and a board member of the Trident CEO Council, has given his support to the campaign for an increase in the tax, arguing traffic congestion has worsened over the years.