A State DOT’s Unshakable Highway Fixation

The South Carolina Department of Transportation is sometimes still familiarly known as the “highway department.” That was, in fact, the agency’s proper title until 1977, when it was changed by order of the general assembly to the Department of Highways and Public Transportation.

In many ways, though, the old name still fits. In the 2009-10 fiscal year, the department spent about two percent of its $1 billion budget on transit. The rest was distributed among maintenance, engineering, planning and construction of roads and bridges.

This map shows the path of the highway SCDOT has planned for Charleston, unless opponents successfully fend it off. Image: SCDOT

That bias appears to have carried over in SCDOT’s handling of the Interstate 526 extension in Charleston. Over the protests of a majority of local residents, SCDOT has put forward a nearly half-billion-dollar proposal for a traditional highway bypass through Charleston’s lowcountry. The origin for the plan dates back to the days when SCDOT was still called the highway department.

The seemingly single-minded devotion to highways on the part of state and many local leaders frustrates Josh Martin of the Coastal Conservation League. The League’s alternative plan, A New Way to Work, emphasized street-level reforms over the disruption and environmental destruction of a freeway. What’s more, the League contends that traffic problems in West Ashley, Johns Island and James Island could be resolved for less than half the cost of SCDOT’s “preferred alternative.”

Why are politicians and the DOT overlooking more affordable and effective solutions? Martin said many Charleston-area leaders simply aren’t informed about the latest developments in the field of transportation.

“It’s just a political leadership that is really embedded in this antiquated thought of how transportation planning works,” he said. “You look at all these other places actually tearing their freeways down and we’re about to build a half-billion-dollar highway.”

“We are making the largest dumb-growth investment in the country with I-526,” he added.

Five years ago, SCDOT was contracted by Charleston County to develop plans to complete the I-526 Expressway — a 70s-era bypass plan. The state opened the door to suggestions for the project. In total, 39 plans were considered, including the Coastal Conservation League’s “A New Way to Work,” which calls for common-sense reforms such as reinforcing the street grid, adding medians and removing excessive curb cuts on three major existing thoroughfares: Savannah Highway, Folly Road and Maybank Highway.

But only seven proposals were chosen by SCDOT for extensive consideration, and “A New Way to Work” didn’t make the cut. Each of SCDOT’s seven finalists was a variation on the same theme: the construction of a traditional highway extension. A “no-build alternative” was also considered.

Before embarking on the study, SCDOT completed a traffic modeling project for the region. Its analysis determined that traffic on 55 percent of the main thoroughfares in West Ashley, James Island and Johns Island exceeds capacity during peak hours.

In its environmental impact statement, SCDOT evaluated each proposal based on the following criteria: congestion mitigation, regional mobility, safety, environmental sensitivity and cost. “Alternative G” — a $489 million grade-level, controlled-access freeway — was the preferred option selected by SCDOT.

David Kinard, SCDOT’s manager for the I-526 project, says “A New Way to Work” was considered but did not meet the department’s criteria. He declined to elaborate, saying SCDOT’s preferred alternative has been vetted through the public engagement process.

John Welch, a commissioner with the town of James Island, has been an outspoken opponent of SCDOT’s highway extension proposal. Welch, whose suburban community will be bisected by I-526, says the project will promote sprawl and fuel congestion. He believes the real motivation for the highway extension is to promote development. He favors the street-level reforms proposed by the Coastal Conservation League.

“It’s not that our roads are jammed, it’s that our intersections are simplistic,” said Welch. “The problems that are occurring on these islands really can be solved by reworking some of the major intersections.”

Welch joins Martin in blaming old-fashioned leadership for putting forward an old-fashioned plan.

“Our Department of Transportation has never done anything but build highways,” he said. “They’re still the highway department for all practical purposes. They never even consider these more practical considerations.”

John Norquist, President and CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism, has been following the project as part of CNU’s Highways to Boulevards Initiative. Norquist said the state’s plan relies on exaggerated projections for population growth and vehicle miles traveled. Furthermore, he said, it will hurt property values in the islands it is purporting to help by degrading the scenic landscape.

“On a lot of levels it’s a bad idea,” he said. “It isn’t going to do anything for Charleston; it will just create more sprawl.”

Although some state DOTs are beginning to take a different approach, many across the country still view streets simply as a congestion battleground, said Norquist. Many industry standard-bearers hold an almost religious zeal for the maximization of car-carrying capacity, he said. Traditionally, however, streets have been a site for commerce and social gathering as well as transportation. And that is still what works best in urban settings, he said.

But there’s a lot of inertia to overcome.

Many in the transportation industry view the freeway as “their ultimate creation,” Norquist said. “It’s also the most destructive road in an urban context.”

“These battles go on all over the country all the time,” said Norquist. “The way [planners] look at it, they’re looking at the big picture not some petty little community concern. We want to speed up the traffic but all the annoying people in these communities aren’t agreeing with us.”

Yet, Charleston residents might still prevail. Charleston County officials are weighing their alternatives in light of the public opposition to SCDOT’s Alternative G. According to Jim Armstrong, Director of Transportation Development for Charleston County, county officials have asked SCDOT to reconsider other alternatives, including “A New Way to Work.”