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Aug 06 2010

G, what an alternative!

By Kristin Hackler

DSC02943In 1972, plans for a completed “Charleston Inner Belt Freeway” were drawn to include a connection between West Ashley, James Island and Johns Island. However, after the 19.4 miles of the existing I-526 was completed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, work on the remaining section fell to the wayside until about three years ago, when the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SC DOT) and Charleston County began work on the current project.

After multiple public hearings wherein citizens voiced their opinions on 39 different proposed alternatives, the SC DOT announced their recommended preferred alternative during a special presentation at Charleston County Council Chambers on Wednesday, July 28.

“When we began this project, we all agreed to start over; go from scratch and not look at it [the original I-526 plan] as it was before,” said SC DOT Project Director David Kinard. “When you look at so many different alternatives, you start to see trends and some things just popped out.”

Some of the ideas that “popped out” to the design team were suggestions for lower speeds, at-grade construction with more of a boulevard versus a highway feel, and a bike/pedestrian lane. By combining some of the more popular alternatives, the design team landed on Alternative G, a route which they feel sufficiently provides for the project’s needs of capacity, safety and regional mobility.

According to the draft environmental impact study, Alternative G has less impact on the environment than the majority of other alternatives. It has the lowest number of relocations with 22 residential buildings and four commercial buildings impacted, and the lowest number of identified noise receivers at 137 receivers (buildings), with noise levels ranging from 39.2 decibels to 76.7 decibels (a normal conversation is about 60 decibels). It also includes a 7.9 mile bike/pedestrian path which would essentially allow a cyclist to start on James Island and pedal to the I-526 base of the West Ashley Greenway. It’s also the least expensive alternative, coming in at $489 million in 2009 dollars. While the SC DOT doesn’t yet know how they will come up with the additional $69 million on top of the $420 million already set aside for the project by the State Infrastructure Bank, Kinard stated that they would begin looking into available grants and alternative sources for funding.

The construction of Alternative G would necessitate the crossing of 132.13 acres of floodplains, requiring 17.43 acres of fill in approximately 3.32 acres of critical area saltwater wetlands and 14.11 acres of freshwater wetlands. It would also result in five unbridged stream crossings and fourteen bridged crossings with potential fill impacts on approximately 939 linear feet (.55 acre) of stream. The bridging of forested wetland, according to the study’s executive summary, “may necessitate the permanent removal of tree species from the wetland, because trees growing under (or near) a bridge could potentially cause damage to the structure.”

This alternative also adversely impacts the Fenwick Hall Historic District and an area listed as “archaeological site 1656,” although the study notes that a formal evaluation will take place of the these resources during field testing and prior to the release of the final environmental impact study.

Lastly, of all of the alternatives, Alternative G is the only route listed as having an impact on the climbing wall and bouldering cave at James Island County Park.

Alternative G is described by the SC DOT as:

“A four-lane parkway with bicycle and pedestrian facilities which extends from the existing U.S. 17/I-526 interchange across the Stono River to Johns Island as a four-lane parkway facility with low speeds (i.e. 35 to 45 mph). This alternative provides two connector roads onto Johns Island. These connector roads would tie into River Road north of Maybank Highway (between Rushland Landing Road and Penny Lane) and River Road south of Maybank Highway (in the vicinity of Cane Slash Road) and would include improvements to the Maybank Highway/River Road intersection. On James Island, the parkway would pass through the northern edge of the James Island County Park. After intersecting Riverland Drive, the parkway continues northeast, south of the Regatta Apartments, Carmike James Island Cinema and the U.S. Post Office, tying into the existing James Island Connector/Folly Road interchange. Access is provided to Central Park Road via Riley Road and Up on the Hill Road.”

“It’s a wonderful plan and great idea going forward,” said Dr. Paul Roberts, the Town of Kiawah Island’s volunteer road consultant and former president for the Kiawah Island Community Association. “It would be the perfect entrance for the Johns Island Greenway.”

“There are many more cost-effective, localized and modern proposals that would alleviate the traffic problems in Charleston County,” said Thomas Legare, candidate for Charleston County Council District 8. “The people of Charleston County deserve more than just another bloated, outdated highway project that most experts believe has only a slim chance of relieving traffic congestion.”

Now that the draft environmental impact study is complete, the Recommended Preferred Alternative will be presented to the public for comment at two public hearings on Tuesday, August 31, and Thursday, September 2, at Burke High School, located at 244 President Street. The same information will be presented both nights with an open-house session beginning at 5 p.m. and a formal hearing starting at 6 p.m. Comments received at these meetings and during the comment period (which expires on September 30) will be incorporated with additional field studies to refine the project’s final design and mitigation measures.

For more information, visit www.scdot/i526.com, call the hotline at 1-888-mcei526 (1-888-623-4526), or call David Kinard at 803-737-1963. Hard copies of the draft EIS are available at the Johns Island, West Ashley and James Island regional libraries.

(IN A BOX)

In response to public comments and engineering studies, the Recommended Preferred Alternative for the completion of Mark Clark Expressway includes:

• A four-lane parkway facility with a 15-foot, center median.

• Low posted speeds (35-45 mph).

• A multi-use path along the entire length to accommodate bikes and pedestrians.

• Connectivity to the James Island County Park and the West Ashley Greenway.

• Two connector roads onto Johns Island which complement existing land use plans within the Urban Growth Boundary.

• The lowest cost ($489 million) of the seven reasonable alternatives.

• The lowest number of relocations (26) of the seven reasonable alternatives.

• The lowest number of identified noise receivers (137) of the seven reasonable alternatives.

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