Hours lost to commuting on congested roadways, sitting on roads blocked by trains and navigating streets flooded from rain and high tides are all part of a typical drive for many Lowcountry residents.
The region’s population grows daily with industry continuing to add jobs, families moving into residential housing, and tourists flocking to Charleston’s downtown and the area’s beaches.
While the Lowcountry’s economic successes rise, its infrastructure woes worsen, said Bryan Derreberry, president and CEO of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Business leaders consistently rank inadequate transportation options and highway capacity as top concerns, along with affordable housing and the search for skilled workers.
Derreberry said the Lowcountry’s growth will only accelerate, requiring “wise investment choices” in the region’s transportation network.
“All these things are important for the ability of our community to continue to scale to its growth, and if we don’t, we end up looking like Atlanta; we end up looking like Austin — places that have simply not been able to keep pace with the amount of growth they’ve faced,” he said.
Representatives from large employers, private companies, small businesses and the transportation sector sat on the chamber’s transportation task force.
The group’s new report outlines a plan to build new roads and highways, improve existing routes, address flooding issues and expand freight capacity. It serves as an advocacy tool, listing infrastructure priorities, but it does not have the power to push the projects through at the municipal or state level.
Several task force members said extending Interstate 526 to James Island and Johns Island is the top priority.
Barry Whalen, senior vice president of HLA Inc. and a task force member, said new roads are crucial because widening projects often prove too expensive without providing enough long-term capacity.
The report said building onto I-526 will “alleviate chokepoints at Main Road and Folly Road and take hundreds of daily commuters off surface streets and away from neighborhoods.”
Opponents of the project have said it would still fail to alleviate congestion while diminishing the quality of life for island residents and harming the environment with a huge transportation project.
For more than a decade, the I-526 project has stalled, mired in political infighting and funding shortages.
The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank originally designated $420 million for the I-526 project. Disagreements over the need for the roadway continued, and estimated costs increased to $770 million over time.
With a $350 million funding gap and no defined plan to secure the money, the bank voted last year to put the $420 million back into its general fund. The bank then reversed its decision early this year, giving Charleston County more time to come up with a plan.
Charleston County Council voted in March to allocate $150 million to the project, and the Charleston Area Transportation Study Committee said it would secure federal funding for the remaining amount. Progress on that remains at a standstill.
Charleston County recently sued the state for breach of contract, asking the S.C. Supreme Court to order the state to pay for the entire project. The project now awaits a lawsuit resolution and a vote at the next bank board meeting.
Public transit, choices
Building new roads and expanding highways are not a full solution either, said task force member Melvin Williams, vice president of business development at S&ME Inc. He advocated for the proposed Bus Rapid Transit system.
The BRT system would involve a fleet of buses running in a dedicated lane, connecting Summerville and downtown Charleston. It is the only public transportation project cited in the report.
The project, estimated to cost up to $400 million, has $250 million from Charleston County’s half-cent sales tax referendum; planners expect federal funding to fill the gap, officials said.
Whalen said planning for transportation projects needs to happen alongside land-use decisions — like where housing developments and employment centers will be built.
Derreberry echoed this, saying affordable housing, traffic congestion and density decisions are all intrinsically connected in relieving chokepoints on the roadways.
“People don’t want to get up and drive 40 miles to work,” he said. “That’s nobody’s desire.”
He said the public can also play a role, with incentives for carpooling, staggered start times, and avoiding driving in typical high-volume times.
“Everybody can’t get on the road at 7:15 (a.m.) in their own vehicle,” Derreberry said.
Most projects would pull money from local, state and federal sources, but some plans in the report do not have any viable funding sources currently.
The passage of the infrastructure funding bill in the spring allocated $630 million annually to road projects around the state. It is a huge step forward but still falls hundreds of millions of dollars short of addressing regional needs, said Ian Scott, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce senior vice president of advocacy.
“We have to be advocates for increased funding and investment. All options need to be at the table,” Scott said. “We had a big win at the state Legislature this year with infrastructure funding. That alone is not going to be enough. We are going to continue to need financing and other local and federal partnerships to fund our needs.”
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 7, 2017, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.