This was a banner week for transportation in South Carolina. On Thursday, after more than a decade of blood, toil, sweat and tears on the part of concerned citizens and the Conservation League, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) voted to withdraw funds for the I-526 extension to John’s Island. The demise of this project, which had become the most expensive highway in South Carolina’s history, has the potential to launch a fresh, new discussion about transportation planning.
It is difficult to say something about 526 that hasn’t already been said. It was a boondoggle forced down the collective throats of Charleston County by politicians willing to go to almost any length to build it. It ranked low on the Charleston metro area’s priority list and was absent from the list of state priorities. It diverted scarce public funds from basic transportation needs like road maintenance and repair. It would have worsened sprawl on John’s Island, threatened traditional land uses like farming and forestry and undermined indigenous communities. It was a vestige of a failed 20th century approach to transportation, when circumferential roads were thought to be the solution to every growing region’s transportation problems; but when they were completed, things only got a lot worse. It sucked the air out of the room, by eliminating the potential to think creatively about building a transportation system that not only reduced congestion, but made communities better places to live.
Fundamentally, the debate over 526 expressed disparate visions of the Lowcountry. One conceived of a region connected by a “modern” system of highways linking homes, jobs, stores and schools, with only superficial concern for history, beauty and indigenous culture. The other valued authenticity, community and environmental integrity and was conscious of the potential for large scale public projects to cause large scale, irreversible damage. These two visions are essentially those propounded during the 1950s and 1960s by Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in the battle over the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have plowed through Greenwich Village.
The allure of 526 was always its stunning simplicity. With one silver bullet, proponents argued, the region’s problems could be solved. Even as project costs soared, from $420 million to $550 million, and then to $725 million, 526 promoters assured residents that the benefits were real, long lasting and financially justified. This characterization of 526, misleading as it was, made it impossible for the community to think creatively about solutions that not only reduced congestion but also made their neighborhoods better places to live. It was the road that ate the civic minds of West Ashley. This, I think, was the greatest casualty of the ten-year debate.
With that point in mind, the first piece is an editorial from the Post and Courier wisely urging the city, the county and the citizenry to take this opportunity to explore what other transportation projects are needed and to develop a consensus around advancing those.
Here is a sample of the extensive news coverage of the STIB board’s decision.
526 was also a story about the abuse of political power, through an agency — the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) — controlled by two people, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate. Together, they appoint four of the seven STIB board members. (Do the math…) When 526 was first approved for funding, those two people were Bobby Harrell and Glenn McConnell, both of whom represented West Ashley. There are 33 state transportation infrastructure banks in America, but only one – South Carolina’s – stands outside of the state Department of Transportation, governed by an independent board appointed by legislators.
Thus, the control of billions of public dollars – more than five billion to date – was placed in the hands of two politicians, with no reference to the state transportation plan and no system of prioritizing state needs. Furthermore, accountability by the decision makers at the voting booth was limited to less than 3% of South Carolina’s electorate.
The following article by the Post and Courier reports that the Legislative Audit Council (LAC) has reviewed the STIB and concluded that all of its functions can and should be performed by the S.C. Department of Transportation. The LAC recommends, as we at the Conservation League have for five years, that the STIB be placed under the control of the DOT. Fortunately, the transportation bill passed by the S.C. Senate gives the DOT oversight authority for STIB funding decisions. Soon we will see whether the final version of the bill that emerges from the conference committee includes that safeguard.
I’m also including a link to the World Monuments Fund blog. This week they write about the arrival in Charleston of another Carnival cruise ship, the Sunshine, which carries roughly 50% more passengers than the Ecstasy. The title of the article, “Steeples, not Smokestacks,” says it all.
The 526 warriors deserve our thanks, (and they will get it in our upcoming newsletter). In the spirit of Jane Jacobs, they took on the power structure and today, ten years later, they can declare victory. Jane Jacobs had a friend in the struggle against Robert Moses, the anthropologist Margaret Mead. She famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
I hope you’ve had a great Memorial Day!