Is the proposed 526 “parkway” crossing Johns Island and James Island a completion or an extension? It’s both and it’s likely dead.
Last week, Charleston County Council voted to end the project. Without the county’s support, the state says it will not move forward. The hope is that some of the promised $420 million in state aid for the project can stay in Charleston to improve existing roads along busy commuter routes in West Ashley and on Johns Island, but it’s unlikely. The state has said the county will be on the hook for up to $11.6 million that the state has already been spent on designs, studies, and land acquisition.
Supporters of the highway failed because many of them couldn’t get past a semantic argument over whether the project was a completion of the 1970’s era highway or an extension of the interstate.
Anyone who has driven on 526 to Savannah Highway or who has taken the connector to Folly Road has noticed two oddly stumped highways pining for each other like lovers across a great divide. So completionists are right, the project was meant to go on. But, logistically, how do you get these two highways to connect? You extend 526, connecting the two popular commuter routes. That’s a bone for you extensionists. It really doesn’t matter to anyone except the strongest of supporters who feel that saying “completion” over and over again is a trump card to any opposition.
Estimates suggest the state DOT’s preferred $489 million route will cut commuting time by two minutes. “Completion!” There’s a $69 million shortfall that county leaders would have to find to begin work on the highway. “Completion!” Organized and fiery opposition from residents has put permitting in doubt. “Completion!”
Another popular argument from supporters has been that the parkway would provide a terrific hurricane evacuation route. When you have to rely on a nearly decade old scare that people will have a tough time leaving the islands, it’s a sure sign you’re desperate for justification. Why just a parkway? Why not an eight-lane highway? Or a 10-lane highway? We build escape routes within reason, and County Council obviously didn’t find the state plan reasonable.
Compounding the challenges for completionists was the weak argument from the few supporters they had on the council, if you can call them supporters. At first, Chairman Teddie Pryor did his best to limit debate on the project. Two minutes into the Finance Committee’s vote on it, Pryor was ready to clear the audience after Councilman Dickie Schweers received applause for his opposition to the project. But, when forced to vote on whether to OK the state’s plan for the parkway, not even Pryor supported the road.
Meanwhile, Vice Chairman Elliott Summey failed in his effort to wash the county’s hands of the project with a motion that would have allowed the state to move forward without the county’s consent. He argued it would protect the county from footing the bill for work already done. But other council members saw it as a silent endorsement of the state’s plan and said no.
And the small coalition of support for the project just fell apart from there. With confirmation Tuesday that the state would indeed seek the $11.6 million the county owes them, Summey argued for the county to negotiate a smaller project. The council said no. “I’m not in favor of opening the door to an expressway,” said Councilwoman Colleen Condon.
The final vote to reject the state plan was 6-0, with Summey and Councilman Vic Rawl abstaining. The vote for limited improvements or not to build anything at all was 5-3. Chairman Pryor, Summey, and Rawl voted in opposition.
Summey was particularly frustrated with the vote. “This is crazy. This is reckless. This is appalling,” he said. As the vote was held, he shook his head in disappointment.
Condon was ever the optimist. “We’ve all agreed we want to do the projects people want,” she said. “Let’s take one more chance to see if the state will do the improvements that people want.”