By Gregg Bragg, The Island Connection Staff Writer
Almost forty days and forty nights after the collision of King Tides and torrential rains eliminated the intersection of Main Rd. and Hwy. 17, Johns Island residents met to discuss their roads. The Nov. 16 event at St. Johns High School was well timed, given the recent flooding. However, with over a half dozen officially sanctioned projects underway in the area, efforts to meet had been in the works for some time. The unofficial Johns Island Council collaborated with local activist group Concerned Citizens of the Sea Islands to promote the event, scheduling an array of state and local officials.
State Representative Robert L. Brown (SC-116) showed his support while Charleston County councilmember Joe Qualey was there to get input from constituents. Additional luminaries included over 350 Johns Island residents, elected officials from both Seabrook and Kiawah islands, and a bevy of representatives from the S.C. Department of Transportation, who were there to describe, explain and answer questions about the projects themselves. The list also included representatives from law enforcement, fire and emergency services with plenty to say about a particular project.
One of the single biggest concerns is replacement of the bridge crossing Burden’s Creek, which Brent Lewis, DOT Program Manager, Lowcountry Region characterized as “structurally deficient.” Replacing a bridge doesn’t always mean doing without, except in this case. The historically and environmentally sensitive area limits options, necessitating road closures. Construction is currently planned for 2016 between June 11 and August 14, in deference to the school year. However, the timing rear-ends travel and hurricane seasons, the ingredients of nightmares for emergency responders.
Fire Chief Colleen Walz, St. Johns Fire District, and Reggie Davis, of Charleston County Emergency Medical Services, didn’t debate the schedule so much as confirm their familiarity with the situation. Both promised to respond accordingly, do whatever was necessary (including the use of helicopters if needed) to avoid problems and coordinate with counterparts in adjacent jurisdictions.
It was Charleston County Sheriff Jim Woods, however, who gave the most animated response.
Echoing comments made by Walz and Davis, the sheriff also had a lot to say about detours, accidents and traffic control. “Many people think state law prohibits moving your car if you have been involved in an accident. If you’re worried about insurance, take a picture but then MOVE YOUR CAR,” Woods said before addressing the impending closures/detours including his phone number. He would later tell The Island Connection “Yes, I want my number in the paper. They [residents] live here. They know these roads better than I do. If you have anything to report, a better way of handling a situation or a more efficient detour, call me at 843.529.5328.”
Concerns about the Burdens Creek closures are amplified by the nearly simultaneous planned replacement of the Hoopstick Bridge.
Molli LeMin, Construction Project Manager with DOT, allayed some of the concern with the Hoopstick replacement easily enough. Responding to questions, she confirmed two lanes would remain open throughout the project’s seven month duration. LeMin also drew the random card resulting in her describing the “pitchfork.” According to the plan, Maybank Highway will be widened from the Stono Bridge through the intersection with River Rd. Two legs will be added east of the intersection splaying out from the center lane. The first leg will deposit drivers north of the intersection while the second drops them to the south. The most emphatic comments however were reserved for the intersection of Main and 17.
Johns Island resident Marietta Brown, whose family has been on the island since 1863, made some piercing observations.
She spoke of friends forced to sell long held plots to developers, by taxes they couldn’t keep up with. Development, in turn means equipment that Brown thinks existing infrastructure wasn’t designed for.
“This didn’t happen before those apartments [at Main and 17] were built. If you make a pie and the crust is too thin, the filling is going to leak out,” she said of post flooding repairs.
The clarity of her comments and forceful tone resonated into cheers and raucous applause. Kevin Turner, DOT District Construction Engineer, responded saying work wasn’t finished, before describing a future Main and 17 intersection.
LeMin described a Main Road widened from 17 to the north end of River Road using a plan that saved 47 grand oaks over previous plans. Steve Thigpen, Director of Transportation Development who had a leading role in the tag team of DOT officials, was bent on sharing every known detail of the project. The first priority, he said, was to repair what they had by installing more and better drainage while widening, raising and repaving the immediate area.
The permanent solution pitched by DOT officials to address both flooding and congestion at Main and 17 is the long term, more exotic and expensive “flyover.”
The “flyover” is currently being debated at CCC and has previously been reported by The Island Connection. It was the “long term” part of the response that prompted another attendee to ask if the county would place a hold on building permits until roads had a chance to catch up to demands.
The Kiawah Island Community Association reported as many as 80 new residential development projects had been approved for Johns Island as recently as 2010. Although a bad economy slowed things down at the time, the pace of development is picking up again according to attendee Eric Draper of the Charleston Real Estate group. The impact of building thousands of new homes on Johns Island infrastructure warrants consideration and action, urged Rich Thomas who deftly emceed the event.
Thomas, who is on the St. Johns Water Company Board and is involved with both the JI Council and CCSI, helped put the meeting together because so many questions were coming to members of all three groups.