Last evening (December 13, 2012) Charleston County Council made a Lose-Lose choice when they breathed new life into a transportation option that they had unanimously rejected over a year ago. After a strong push by the business community and the City of Charleston to complete I-526, the interstate that currently extends ¾ of the way around the Charleston Metro area, the Council caved in a 5 to 4 vote to approve Alternative G which, if built, will be a low-speed parkway with 6 intersections, running through a corner of James Island County Park and through the heart of James and Johns islands. Most people, if they are honest, will tell you they prefer to see I-526 completed as a high-speed expressway. Alternative G is a compromise plan with the selling points being that it is the lowest- cost alternative to complete the interstate and the easiest for which to obtain acquisition rights because it will directly impact the fewest property owners.
With the inclusion of last- minute amendments to the proposal that add fly-overs at two intersections and double the distance from the parkway from 500 feet to 1,000 feet for property owners to make diminution in value claims, an undetermined increase in cost and number of acquisition rights has been added to the project, diluting the arguable merits of the option. The Council added other band-aids such as green buffers, all without studying the feasibility of the amendments. This came after refusing to study claims from the Nix 526 folks that there are engineering solutions to resolve traffic congestion on the sea islands that would be less expensive than Alternative G and would impact area residents to a far lesser degree. As it was, many on the Council had not seen some of the amendments ahead of time. Voting on the measure in a Committee Meeting and a Council Meeting on the same night got the deed done in time to lock up the promised funds before the composition of the SIB board changes in January but did not allow time for thoughtful review. The question of whether the amendments materially change the whole proposal may be an issue of concern.
We credit the Council with good intentions, long-suffering patience, and compassion. We hold the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) accountable for their carrot and stick approach, first promising revenues that may exist far in the future for a project that is rated 15th in priority in the state, and then threatening to require Charleston County to repay the $11 million tab already spent for multiple engineering studies. On top of committing taxpayers to a very expensive parkway, the County still needs to bond multiple smaller projects to alleviate traffic congestion at already designated choke points so that residents of the sea islands can even get to the parkway. It has been suggested that these smaller, less expensive projects that needed to be undertaken anyway may have been enough to relieve traffic congestion.
Much attention was given to what the direct effects to property owners nearest the proposed parkway will be, but the indirect effect of a roadway that is projected to increase development on Johns Island between 20% and 40%, thus threatening its rural character and thereby affecting all the residents, did not seem to really make an impact. Other indirect effects include rising property values that come with denser development. That may sound good to many, but apparently not to a large number of existing home owners on fixed or limited incomes that would be hard-pressed to pay the resultant higher property taxes. This proposal also increases the vulnerability of heirs’ property and the whole Gullah culture along with the working farms that supply the Charleston metro area with fresh produce. Increased development brings with it more traffic congestion, thus a vicious cycle is promoted rather than thoughtfully mitigated.
When will we learn that what we build, where and how we build it, determines the quality of a place far more than any Comprehensive Plan or Zoning and Development Ordinances? Where we place infrastructure shapes future growth patterns. Simply sighing and saying that an area is growing and we can’t do anything about it except accommodate it shows regrettable short-sightedness.
Angela T. Jones, Conservation Chair
The Robert Lunz Group of the SC Sierra Club Chapter