This story was originally printed in the Sept. 6, 2021 issue of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.
The daily commute from Johns Island to North Charleston had become so overwhelming that Bradley Taggart quit his job in 2020 to become a stay-at-home dad.
Taggart is co-founder of Charlestonians for I-526, a group of now 11,000 island residents who formed in 2012 out of mutual commuter struggles. Together they advocate for the proposed Mark Clark Extension by commenting at meetings, researching and disseminating information to residents, primarily via Facebook.
“What we were seeing in the media as far as people opposing new roads, and what we were hearing amongst our neighbors, it didn’t match,” Taggart said. “The people wanted the roads, but some of the people and special interest groups did not.”
In the next 30 years, traffic on the Mark Clark and surrounding roadways is expected to get worse.
By 2050, Johns Island’s population could grow by 206%, and a trip from the intersection of River and Main roads to Charleston International Airport could take 134 minutes, according to a 2019 Cultural Historical Activity Theory model.
Charleston County Deputy Director of Public Works Richard Turner and Jae Mattox, a S.C. Department of Transportation program manager for the project, addressed the traffic — and a solution — on Aug. 19. After decades in the making, plans for Alternative G, a proposed version of the Mark Clark Extension, are moving forward and the public feedback period is open through Oct. 15.
Mattox and Turner said they are eager to hear specifically from the people living in the region.
“This project’s been around for so long and my fear is that people are immune to it,” Mattox said. “When that happens, it’s hard for us to accomplish what we need to accomplish during this period.”
The proposed Alternative G is a 9.5 mile, four-lane parkway with speed limits between 35 and 45 miles per hour. Of the extension, 6.1 miles will be a bridge structure over the Stono River, reducing the project’s footprint and wetland impacts.
While the goal is to have as little interruption as possible, Alternative G still would require seven business relocations and 13 residential relocations, Mattox said.
There is no projected cost yet for Alternative G as leaders await final plans, but the estimated total in 2019 was between $725 million and $772 million.
The 9.5-mile route will have two connection points extending Interstate 526. Connector A will be the western link between the Mark Clark Extension and River Road, while Connector B will link the eastern side.
On average, the extension could save more than 6,946 commuter hours a day or 98,000 driving miles, according to a 2010 environmental impact study. That’s roughly 36 million miles driven annually by commuters and more than $20 million in savings each year for gas and vehicle wear and tear, per IRS mileage calculations.
“The road would pay for itself in 16 years, just based on the time value that it would save,” Taggart said.
Alternative G is one of 39 plans that were originally proposed 10 years ago. The 2021 version combines two previous ideas together using comments from residents, elected officials, planning agencies and more over the years, Mattox said.
“Public involvement is so important and has impacts on the project,” Mattox said.
Public feedback also played a part in relocating plans for the intersection of Connection B, shifting the multi-path to the county park entrance, and upgrading the original intersection of Maybank Highway and River Road.
If completed, the extension could cut the commute from River and Main roads to the airport by 94 minutes, or from the same location to Medical University of South Carolina from 114 minutes to 19, per CHAT calculations.
“It’s a lot of commuter traffic that’s going in and out of those areas each day,” Turner said. “When I look at traffic needs, that’s really the thing that sinks in to me.”
Getting to work
Between 2015 and 2050, employment growth in Charleston County is expected to increase 57% to 415,637 jobs, according to CHATS.
Taggart agreed the extension would be valuable for Johns Island, Kiawah Island, Seabrook Island and Wadmalaw commuters.
“All of our neighbors are in support of (the extension) because most of them work and have small children and mobility is high on their list, whereas some of the older residents of the island, mobility is not a priority,” Taggart said. “They lead a different lifestyle than most of the newer residents. And they’re kind of clinging to the past.”
Taggart understands the concerns. He too grew up in a rural area and saw it suburbanized, but the growth is a real issue, he said.
“Johns Island as the crow flies is five miles from downtown Charleston,” he said. “So to think any city five miles away from the fastest growing city is going to stay country is not realistic. It’s filling in on Johns Island, and we have to just accept that reality.”
Not all residents wanted to be on the record about their opinions about plans for the Mark Clark Expressway. One James Island resident, like Taggart is for the extension, but he doesn’t believe Alternative G is the finite solution. He suggests the project be broken up into two parts, focusing first on Johns Island. Leaders can then determine costs and see if the extension works.
“They’re trying to give us something that they’re not even sure is going to alleviate all these troubles,” he said.
Some are concerned Alternative G will create more of a chokehold at Maybank Highway and Main Road because enough hasn’t been done to keep up with growth and infrastructure needs.
“You’re going to cruise over the bridge and still sit in traffic when you get off,” one person said. “If you bring a bunch of cars over to a road that’s not properly built to handle it, it’s going to be another traffic jam.”
Following Alternative G’s public comment period, an environmental-impact statement will be drafted, hopefully by spring 2022, Mattox said.
If the project receives federal and state approval on schedule summer 2022 and winter 2023, the final design would come 2023 and construction could kick off in 2024.
For those interested, there is a virtual public hearing room on the website at www.scdotmarkclark.com to attend meetings. Public can also comment online, email or write to Turner and Mattox at P.O. Box 191, Columbia, S.C. 29202.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to get comments, we’ll be able to get concerns addressed. … If we don’t get the feedback, we don’t know what we don’t know,” Mattox said.
On Sept. 14, a public hearing was held at Essex Village Church in West Ashley with an informal session from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. A formal presentation and verbal comment session began at 6 p.m.
“This is totally not a done deal,” Mattox said. “That’s part of the reason we’re going to the public because we’ll take everything that we get from the public, all the comments, all the concerns, ns and we’ll address those as best we can.”