Op-ed: Speed long-delayed I-526 extension along

We Stand For Progress Reports Jun. 20, 2018, 11:36am

  An aerial view of where I-526 ends near Citadel Mall in West Ashley.
An aerial view of where I-526 ends near Citadel Mall in West Ashley.

Complete it already!

Long-delayed construction of the Interstate 526 extension needs to finally move ahead. And, as has been amply pointed out to legislators and government agencies for years, completion is a matter of “when,” not “if” — and “when” needs to be sooner rather than later.

South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster said as much recently when he directed the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank (SIB) to support extending I-526 across Johns and James islands. The SIB, a corporate and governmental agency created when the Bank Act was signed in June 1997 to select and assist in the financing of major qualified infrastructure projects, committed to fund the Mark Clark extension in 2006 and didn’t vote against it last month.

McMaster’s call for the Mark Clark Expressway completion came in the wake of a cracked support cable under the Wando River bridge that caused traffic and safety worries. The state’s infrastructure clearly needs a boost and completing the Mark Clark Expressway would go a long way toward alleviating similar traffic and safety concerns.

Back and forth over the project has been going on for decades. South Carolinians born when the original plan was conceived for the Mark Clark Expressway to include a connection between West Ashley, Johns Island and James Island now are approaching retirement age. Charleston County voters in 2004 approved through a referendum a half-cent sales tax and $113 million in general obligation bonds for infrastructure and mass transit improvements. Two years later, Charleston County voters approved the issuance of an additional $205 million in general obligation bonds. A “new” half-cent sales tax was approved by Charleston County voters in 2016.

Over the years, that money has funded a number of projects, but the Mark Clark Expressway completion remains largely in the planning, environmental study and “what if” stage, despite longstanding strong support from proponents who say the 7-mile extension would relieve the current traffic snarls. Completion of the project also would ease evacuation of James, Johns and Wadmalaw islands during hurricanes, and traffic for tourists and residents to and from those areas at other times.

The latest proposed Mark Clark extension project has been under consideration since Charleston County passed a resolution in December 2012 to move ahead with permitting, design, financing and construction. A tentative timeline for the project’s environmental impact statement record of decision was for that to be complete by summer 2015, but anyone who drives along that portion of I-526 knows there hasn’t been much progress.

One longtime and understandably strong infrastructure proponent, the Trident CEO Council, a group of Lowcountry executives who employ more than 10,000 in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties, has written government officials and lawmakers since at least the fall of 2015 in support of completing the I-526 extension.

“Our council is fact-based on our decisions to support issues that can improve the low country,” the council said in a letter to then-Lt. Gov. and Gov.-elect McMaster in January 2017.

“As you can see from our website, www.TridentCEOcouncil.com, we stand for improved infrastructure, quality job growth, education and responsible government, to name a few. We believe that the extension of I-526 is a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’. We strongly support Charleston County and the City of Charleston in their desire to complete I-526 and identify local matching funds to move forward (with) this extension in a phased approach.”

In a similar letter to board members of the SIB, the council said completing I-526 would be a real shot in the arm for Johns Island.

“Currently Johns Island has only two roads in and out, which narrow to one lane each (Kiawah, Seabrook and Wadmalaw use the same two roads),” the council said in that letter.

“We strongly believe the Mark Clark Extension needs to be finished — it is a matter of WHEN, not IF — especially as Metro Charleston grows to 1 million residents in the next dozen years.”

The Trident CEO Council values the natural attributes of our place, supports conservation of land and believes thoughtful land planning is critical to our environmental and economic success.

With all due respect to opponents of the Mark Clark extension, who object largely on environmental grounds, area residents and South Carolinians need this extension. Enough time has passed. The extension should be completed.

– Marc Fetten is chairman of the Trident CEO Council.

This editorial originally appeared in The Post and Courier.                                                            

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