Charleston County Says "No" to Major Bypass, Bucking a Decades-Long Transportation Trend in South Carolina
In a historic move, Charleston County Council has voted to reject extending a major interstate highway, I-526, marking a significant step forward for South Carolina and a great success for advocates of smart growth and rural preservation.
The move is a rejection of the South Carolina Department of Transportation's "one size fits all" approach to transportation planning that has dominated the state for decades. The decision embraces a vision for the future of Charleston's growing metropolitan region that recognizes changing demographics and utilizes fiscally responsible projects for the maximum public benefit. Shifting focus from highway construction will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and allow for investment in alternative transportation choices.
"Charleston County council members deserve a lot of credit for listening to the public, who turned out by the hundreds last year to voice opposition to this unnecessary, overly expensive, ultimately harmful highway," said SELC senior attorney Chris DeScherer.
"This decision puts Charleston on the map. As cities across the country are tearing down highways to support community revival, Charleston has rightly chosen not to extend a highway, not to build two bridges to a rural area and not to consume the entirety of our transportation resources on a project that is no where near the highest regional or state priority," said Kate Parks, program director with the Coastal Conservation League.
After five public hearings, over 1,600 comments were submitted to the SCDOT. Citizens expressed concerns about air and water pollution, loss of public parkland and wetlands, and a growing taxpayer burden for a fiscally irresponsible project. Instead, they asked for local enhancements and improved mass transit in the region, advocating for investment in key growth and employment areas with projects that include light rail, bus circulator routes and bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
"The success is attributed to the public process. The public was engaged beyond saying 'No!' to a highway in their backyard and 'Yes' to more important and significant improvements," Parks said. "The level of public involvement was impossible to ignore and Charleston County Council wisely listened to the public and also rejected this highway extension as a bad plan."
The Town of James Island and the City of Charleston have been at odds over this project. The Town has expressed its desire to protect James Island by preventing a highway from bisecting the Town while the City of Charleston has supported the project in order to facilitate additional growth and development on rural Johns Island.
"The DOT and other communities in South Carolina would do well to follow the County's lead. It's time we stop building new, big, expensive highways that worsen traffic problems and find solutions that improve mobility, invest in our communities, and protect the environment," said Megan Desrosiers, Assistant Director of the League.
Last year, the Coastal Conservation League and Southern Environmental Law Center submitted formal objections to SCDOT's environmental study for the proposed extension of the Mark Clark Expressway. The groups said the study was heavily biased in favor of building the 8-mile highway. They also said the agency's lopsided analysis short-changed a more economical, less environmentally harmful alternative, known as the "New Way to Work," proposed by the Coastal Conservation League.
"For years in this country, we have tried to build our way out of congestion by constructing more and more highways," DeScherer said. "Communities across the nation are beginning to realize that more highways do not necessarily reduce congestion in the long-term. Rather than pouring endless tax dollars into new asphalt, it is more effective to invest in other solutions, such as targeted intersection and other traffic flow improvements, as well as public transit, light rail, biking and pedestrian routes."
The Coastal Conservation League is an environmental advocacy organization whose mission is to protect the natural environment of the South Carolina coastal plain and to enhance the quality of life in our communities by working with individuals, businesses and government to ensure balanced solutions.
The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional nonprofit using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of 40 legal experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.