The Town of James Island didn’t just say “no” to widening Harbor View Road. The once-residential drive is now an artery for half of James Island and a rush-hour nightmare of starts and stops for commuters, so “no” isn’t really an option. Harbor View must be fixed.
But “no” is what you would expect from James Islanders because, frankly, this bunch of rebel-rousing homegrown town-shapers have said “no” to a lot of things.
They’ve said “no” to the City of Charleston — three times. And they’ve mostly thumbed their noses at extending Interstate 526. They are a “no taxes” town that has said “no” to town police officers and firefighters, contracting out those services to the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and the James Island Public Service District.
But when it comes to construction on Harbor View Road, it isn’t the Town of James Island that is saying “no.” It’s Charleston County.
As currently envisioned, the $18 million construction project will create a 10-foot-wide bike path on one side of Harbor View and a 5-foot-wide sidewalk on the other, from North Shore Drive to Fort Johnson Road, and a center turn lane from North Shore to Mikell Drive.
James Island residents want less pavement, thinner lanes, more grass, and more trees. And, like any community, sometimes their requests are at cross-purposes. Some want traffic lights and some don’t. Some want a sidewalk and some don’t. The end result would be a roadway that doesn’t look much different than it does today.
After months of meetings to review the county’s pitch, a group of city and town residents came up with more than 30 ideas of their own, including a proposal for intermittent turning lanes over a center turning lane, for reducing the size of the project and improving the traffic flow. They also asked the county to eliminate the sidewalk; they believe the multiuse path can handle both cyclists and pedestrians. There were also suggestions for things like thinner lanes, increased lighting, and even a duck crossing sign.
County officials say they’ve done all they can to reduce the size of the project, and that includes eliminating the turn lane from Mikell to Fort Johnson and keeping curbs at what the state considers the bare minimum. “The purpose and need is to improve traffic while improving safety for cyclists and pedestrians,” says Jim Armstrong, the county’s transportation development director.
Deputy County Administrator Kurt Taylor says the project has gone before County Council three times for tweaks. “We’ve got the minimum design we can build to address capacity issues,” he says. The county expects to begin searching for contractors this week and could break ground this summer.
The town of James Island sued in 2009 to block the project, but the county’s confidence in moving forward has opponents worried about their chances. Town Councilwoman Robin Welch says the only opportunity left may be in forming a grassroots movement. “I truly believe the only way to turn this around is for the people to get involved.”
Better and Safer?
For 10 years, Susan Milliken has been fighting the Harbor View widening. The Fort Sumter Road resident is ready and willing to admit the road is virtually inaccessible at rush hour, but she also notes that the county’s plan doesn’t fix the problem. “They told the community that Harbor View was going to be better and safer,” she says. “The plan the county has approved will make it more dangerous.”
A main problem for Milliken and others is that the construction doesn’t hit the traffic at its worst spot. She brings up a narrow two-lane bridge on Harbor View just past North Shore Drive on the way to the James Island Connector. Milliken says that regardless of what the county does, the bridge will continue to serve as a choke point as commuters leave the island in the morning and return in the afternoon. “They’re going to lay down all of this asphalt, and they won’t make it safer,” Milliken says.
Armstrong tells the City Paper that bridge improvements are a non-starter. Not only is the bridge good for well over a decade before it needs to be replaced, the money isn’t available right now to widen it.
Milliken is also weary of a wide multiuse path that will fit more than a few bikes and joggers. “A 10-foot path is what a car can go down,” she says. “That’s not a walking path, that’s a car lane.”
City resident Bob Van Dolah took part in the town’s Harbor View panel, even though he largely agrees with the county’s plan, most notably the controversial center lane. “I consider the road fairly dangerous, especially without that turn lane,” he says.
He also notes that improved bike access is also needed. The existing bike lanes on the edges of the road are narrow and worn. According to Van Dolah, they are barely usable. “I wouldn’t ride my bike on Harbor View,” he says.
While Van Dolah agrees with Milliken that the bridge just past North Shore is a choke point, he’s just as concerned about the other end of Harbor View: the intersection at Fort Johnson Road. Currently, Harbor View ends at a stop sign for travelers heading left onto Fort Johnson and another lane with a yield sign for traffic turning right.
The county has proposed finishing this problem by either creating a traditional intersection with a traffic light or a roundabout. But the final plan leaves the intersection largely unchanged. The county says it can’t reconfigure the entrance to Holy Cross Cemetery and that a roundabout would impact the city’s plan to expand nearby tennis courts. Van Dolah disagrees and he says that aerial photographs and measurements prove roundabout would fit.
During a January meeting, Welch and other town leaders presented the group’s ideas to county officials. Weeks later, they received a written response refusing all of the suggestions, bullet-by-bullet, right down to the duck crossing.
A few themes kept coming up in the county’s reasoning. They point to requests made from some residents during public hearings, particularly on divisive issues like increasing the number of street or traffic lights. But most of the arguments centered on state Department of Transportation mandates. These requirements must be met to secure $10 million in federal grants that will pay for most of the project.
Van Dolah says he was disappointed with the county’s response. “My sense is that they’ve made up their minds,” he says. “I do believe it will be an improved road. I just wish they would have been more receptive.”
The town has asked for proof that the county sought exemptions from those state mandates, but the request likely a paper-pushing errand that won’t address the lingering concerns.
“The town is very much committed to additional turn lanes rather than a continuous center lane between North Shore and Mikell,” James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey says, noting that the town has whittled that list of more than 30 suggestions down to one. Meanwhile, discussions between the town and the county continue, he says.
When we asked County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor whether the county saw an opportunity to address any of the town concerns or whether he expected any more changes to the project, he offered one word: “No.”