While eyes have been on Mark Clark Expressway for traffic improvements for years, concerns on busy Maybank Highway have gotten worse for sea island residents, particularly those who live on James and Johns islands. And with coming developments, it’s hard for some to imagine it getting any better.
For many, Johns Island seems to be getting the short end of the stick. Plans to build 1,300 housing units at the intersection of Maybank Highway and River Road, continued pushing against urban growth boundaries and unfinished road projects that have kept the corridor gridlocked are just a handful of residents’ major concerns.
“They’re just holding Johns Island hostage for the Interstate 526 project,” said community activist and farmer Thomas Legare. “They have developers that have bought property here, and residents are just being caught in the middle. They won’t do the necessary repairs and updates they have the money for.”
Charleston County Councilman Joe Boykin, who lives on Johns Island and took office in November 2022, said he’s pushing hard for more collaboration between the county and the city of Charleston for improvements along the Maybank Highway corridor.
“The county was originally pushing for four lanes on Maybank Highway,” he said. “What we have now with three lanes — that was the compromise. But now we see the three lanes are wholly inadequate to deal with that traffic, and really, it’s causing a bigger mess getting off the island in the morning.
“Then, when the new stop light came on Fenwick Hall Allee, it really shone a light on just how failing that stretch of highway really is,” he added. “My phone exploded. I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve gotten. That’s what got me pushing to get everyone working together to make more improvements.”
The ‘red-headed stepchild’
Legare said Johns Island has largely been left behind and ignored in favor of more urban development downtown and elsewhere. The biggest disconnect, he explained, was not having a representative in local government who lived on the islands before Boykin.
“Johns Island has been the red-headed stepchild of Charleston County for just about my entire life,” he said. “But that’s been the real disconnect — not having had a representative who even really talked to their constituents.”
And while Boykin is a light at the end of that tunnel, Legare said, he’s fighting an uphill battle to make up for shortcomings.
“We have this new guy, and he’s doing great,” Legare said of Boykin. “He answers his phone, and he talks to his people, and he asks us, ‘What do you think of this?’ … He spent four years learning what was going on here, and I may not agree with him on everything, but he is aiming to hold the line on development, and that’s the big thing.”
But some residents aren’t seeing the difference just yet.
“Getting on and off the island has only gotten more difficult and more dangerous for drivers,” said Joseph Dalton, a Johns Island resident. “We just have no reason to trust the people in charge to do anything about it anymore.”
Nancy Wilson, who lives in West Ashley but works on Johns Island, says she sees the traffic every day.
“Just getting to work on time is a struggle,” she said. “And it’s been getting worse.”
Some improvements ahead
But right now, the county is missing the significant funding for a larger project, Boykin said.
“One issue right now is money,” he said. “Those funds we expect would come from the renewal of a half-cent transportation tax. That half-cent sales tax we’re proposing in 2024 could raise well over $5 billion. And nearly a third of that comes from non-residents — those who work in Charleston County or even tourists.”
One of the most impactful projects could be the proposed pitchfork on Maybank Highway, an alternative to road widening that’s meant to divert traffic off the main corridor. But there’s been difficulty finding a way to align the north end of the pitchfork with the south, Boykin said.
But even with proper funding and alignment, the north pitchfork isn’t expected to be finished until early 2024. In the meantime, the county has opted for temporary and intermediate measures.
Alternate merge signs for those traveling along the corridor have already made a small impact, he said. “It’s not a fix, it’s just something to try and get some relief.”
Re-striping the roadway coming onto Johns Island, particularly at the River Road intersection is on the docket next. Southbound, changing the far left lane to turn-only, and the far right lane to straight-or-turn — instead of the other way around — should keep the flow of traffic moving more smoothly, Boykin said.
Legare proposed doing away with the striping altogether and making that intersection a large roundabout. But he’ll take just about anything at this point, as long as it’s progress.
“They just need to bring in some people who know something about roads,” he said. “It’s just taking them forever to get anything rolling.”
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