SCDOT's Environmental Study For I-526 Extension Is Off-base, And Illegal

The environmental study by the state Department of Transportation for the proposed extension of I-526 distorts relevant data, skews the analysis of alternatives, and is heavily biased in favor of building the 8-mile, $489 million highway through wetlands, marshes and rural communities, making the study illegal, two conservation groups said today. The agency's lopsided analysis short-changed a more economical, less environmentally harmful alternative, known as the "New Way to Work" (NWTW), proposed by the Coastal Conservation League.

In a letter sent to the agency today, the deadline for public comment on the proposal, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the League critiqued in detail the multiple flaws with the draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is required by federal law for major projects. Among other analytical deficiencies, SCDOT evaluated the NWTW using computer models it knew or should have known would not work, and then treated the results as conclusive evidence.  The agency further skewed the results by applying a different model to its preferred alternative to capture every detail of its potential.

The groups also sent a letter today to the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees wetlands permits for the proposal, detailing their concerns about the impacts of the proposed highway, which includes about five miles of bridges, on water quality and wetland habitat.

>> Click here to read the comment letters to SCDOT, and to the Corps (pdf).

Just this week, the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also sent letters to SCDOT and the Corps expressing serious concerns about the I-526 expansion. The EPA recommended that the Corps reject SCDOT's wetlands permit application.
 
"This is a disservice to the Charleston region because the agencies had a far less expensive and less harmful solution for improving mobility west of the Ashley, and they failed to give it serious consideration," said SELC senior attorney Chris DeScherer. He rejected the assertion of some local officials that the I-526 project is the only opportunity the region has to address transportation needs simply because the State Infrastructure Bank has provided some of the funding.

"It's time we shift the conversation about transportation to factor in a host of other ways to achieve these goals, while protecting or even improving community development and our natural resources," he said.

"Our region cannot afford another dumb growth infrastructure investment that disconnects communities and promotes conventional suburban development, especially at a price tag of $500 million," said CCL  Land Use Program Director Josh Martin. "We are at a point where we need to make smart growth infrastructure decisions and investments that connect and complete our existing and planned communities.  At last, our region should utilize smart growth infrastructure investments as a way to promote where and how we want to grow in the future.  The proposed I-526 expansion simply does not pass the smart growth infrastructure test." 

The two conservation groups detail in their letters numerous flaws, errors and violations in the environmental study:

  • The proposal to cut through the James Island County Park violates the Federal Highway Transportation Act, which prohibits the use of public parks and historic sites for highway projects unless no "prudent and feasible alternative" exists. Routing the highway through the park, and so avoiding payment for right-of-way and eminent domain for private property, artificially reduces the cost of the project. 
  • SCDOT jury-rigged the modeling of alternatives in such a way as to preclude the NWTW proposal from meaningful consideration. (The plan calls for redeveloping the local road network at key locations to increase connectivity, giving drivers more choices to avoid congestion on major thoroughfares, which also enhances the mobility of vehicles traveling through these corridors.)   In fact, none of the alternatives ultimately included in the draft environmental study satisfy the criteria that was applied to the NWTW.
  • SCDOT's analysis of reduced commuting times provided by the various alternatives is a virtual shell game. For example, its chosen alternatives were treated as improving mobility on James Island because they shaved between 30 and 66 seconds off of a 21.7 minute commute, while other alternatives such as NWTW, which did not reduce the same travel time by 24 seconds or more, were screened from further consideration. SCDOT's preferred alternative will reduce the average drive time (in comparison to the "no-build" option) by  just 0.6 minutes for drivers in West Ashley, 4.6 minutes for drivers on Johns Island, and 0.6 minutes for drivers on James Island.  These time savings hardly merit the tremendous economic and environmental cost to the region.
  • The agency did not disclose to the public, as required by law, the limitations of its modeling analyses, so there was no way for the public to readily understand the value or veracity of the environmental study.
  • SCDOT did not weigh the consistency of any of the alternatives with local land-use plans and goals. The DEIS omits any mention of the Mark Clark Community Impact Assessment prepared for this project which recognizes that the highway expansion could accelerate and increase the development that the designated Urban Growth Boundary seeks to slow and limit.

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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.

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