Interstate 526 ends in West Ashley at Savannah Highway. Road opponents hope it stays that way. | Photo by Rūta Smith

A recent update of the long-awaited Mark Clark Expressway extension sets the new cost estimate at a whopping $2.35 billion, giving opponents another reason to oppose it and prompting several members of Charleston County Council to suggest a pause.

The proposed extension would transform I-526 from its end at Savannah Highway in West Ashley to a parkway across Johns Island to the James Island Connector. The highway currently connects Mount Pleasant, Daniel Island and North Charleston.

Construction is planned to begin in 2028, according to the state Department of Transportation (DOT), with an estimated two or three years of litigation beforehand. The extension has been contentious since the State Infrastructure Bank voted to fund it in 2007. Opponents from Johns and James islands to downtown have argued that the road does little to address the traffic issues plaguing Johns and James islands and will lead to the sort of explosive development that followed the completion of 526 to Mount Pleasant in the late 1990s. Proponents have long argued that it’s a critical component of Lowcountry transportation infrastructure. 

“I think it has just become a worse and worse idea as time wore on, and that’s unfortunately a common theme,” Johns Island resident John Zlogar said. “Engaging the people before you come up with solutions is a great idea — they had a big shindig showing off a lot of information for a preferred alternative.”

Zlogar said he has been following the project on Johns Island since 2016. But project leaders at the state level think it’s important to see the bigger picture. At a Charleston County Finance Committee meeting May 5, DOT representatives gave a presentation to discuss the price increase, as well as the project’s significance and impact. 

“It’s very important we remember why this project came to be in the first place … to increase the capacity of the regional transportation system and improve safety and enhance mobility,” project director Jay Mattox told members. “This is not a project for James Island or Johns Island or West Ashley — it’s for the region as a whole.”

Some county officials, however, weren’t convinced. 

“In a way, we’ve dodged a bullet here,” County Councilman Dickie Schweers said. “What if we were two or three years into this project right now, and these costs surfaced? For them to increase that much in that short of a time — if we were in the middle of the project … they’d either get us to pay more money or they’d go bankrupt with a project of this size.” 

Despite the rising cost, the state’s share is still capped at $420 million. Before, Charleston County would have been on the hook for about $305 million of the project’s previous estimate of $725 million. Now, the county would be expected to pay more than $1.9 billion. 

“We, the county, were going to take the bull by the horns on this, and we were going to handle it instead of the DOT. I think that was a tragic mistake by us,” Schweers said. “Now, at $2.3 billion, I question whether it’s too big for this state. This is almost more in the federal scope when you’re talking numbers this big.” 

State DOT representatives said the new estimate is high-balled and the actual cost is likely to be lower. But retired Coastal Conservation League founder Dana Beach said the original number is what he’s more interested in. 

“It is completely indisputable that the DOT consistently misrepresented the early cost of the project,” he said. “It never could have been as low as the DOT alleged it was, and we knew that. It was a politically motivated estimate at initially about $420 million. Then that $725-million lowball was just as ridiculous an estimate.”

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg doubled down on his support for the project after the new estimate was unveiled.

“No question, the cost estimates for major infrastructure projects in South Carolina are exploding, and 526 is no exception,” Tecklenburg said in a statement. “But that doesn’t change the fact that our West Ashley and island residents need and deserve the traffic relief and public safety improvements this project will bring.”

But Zlogar said it would be cheaper and more impactful to tackle the traffic woes facing the county with several smaller, more focused projects rather than one big one. One example is the ongoing Main Road Corridor Project, which is broken up into three sections and has been in the works since 2018. The first phase of the project would widen the existing Main Road flyover between River Road and Savannah Highway. 

“There’s other things on Johns Island that can be done to alleviate congestion, like the flyover — it’s going to be great to get that done,” he said. “But the traffic is bad at every intersection, and one thing the county has been talking about doing is five-laning the roads at the lights. If we solve the problems at the intersections, the traffic goes away.

“On Main Road, the traffic is backed up all the way past Mary Ann Point Road, but it’s not because the road isn’t five lanes wide,” Zlogar added. “The same thing for Maybank and River Road. Some improvements have been made, but so many more could help so much more. It really feels like we’re being held hostage by I-526.”

Beach agreed, saying while the project would offer minimal respite for commuters, it’s far too expensive for how little it actually addresses. 

“We have gotten plenty of engineering that illustrates there are vastly less expensive and more effective alternatives to deal with the congestion of West Ashley and Johns Island with none of the negative repercussions and secondary impacts this project would have created,” he said.

What happens next?

It’s not yet clear where individual County Council members stand on the Mark Clark Expressway project, but several have expressed concern about the skyrocketing price and environmental impacts. Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said a vote would be taken on the measure at a future council meeting, after the state Department of Transportation refines the cost estimates — an undertaking that could take several months.

Councilman Kylon Middleton said he would like to familiarize himself more with the project specifics and changes before sharing his opinion publicly. Other council members were more vocal — with council members Henry Darby expressing full opposition to the proposal, and Jenny Honeycutt saying she looked forward to renegotiating with state leaders in the future.

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