In spite of, or perhaps exemplified by, the Legislature’s action on highway funding this session — they rejected a gas tax increase, approved spending $200 million in one time funds on transportation improvements, and substantially reformed the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank — the tug of war between new highway construction, (eg. I-526 to Johns Island), and repairing the existing road system continues. On one side, the vast majority of South Carolina residents, businesses, conservation groups, low-tax and good government advocates and others are pulling in the direction of maintenance and repair. They experience the potholes and broken pavement, and the lack of “minimally adequate” facilities for pedestrians and bicycles, (also known as road shoulders and sidewalks), every day.
On the other side are the local interest groups with one particular project on which they are intensely focused. The mother of these projects is the proposed construction of a new interstate (I-73) to from Rockingham, NC to Conway, SC, promoted for the past two decades by the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce and Horry County politicians.
I-73 comes in two sections. The part I-73 boosters care most about extends from I-95 to Conway. An out-dated cost estimate for this section projects $1.4 billion is needed to build it. It’s probably a good bit more expensive now.
This debate – fix existing roads vs. build new ones — illustrates that democracy is asymmetric. Small constituencies (relative to the population) with a laser-like focus can sustain intense lobbying efforts over years and decades on behalf of their particular causes. (The NRA comes to mind.) The benefits they seek are more tangible and specific to them. They are, therefore, often more effective in building political clout than the diffused concerns of the larger public. Part of this is a result of big money in politics (gun manufacturers, road builders and the like). But part of it is simply that the squeaky wheel still gets the grease, especially when the wheel squeaks constantly, loudly and for extended periods of time.
So… In spite of the fact that no one, including the I-73 promoters, has the slightest idea where $1.4 billion plus dollars will come from, the project ploughs along. This article, by Sammy Fretwell with the State, reports that the permit for the road is now out on public notice, with a new and enticing mitigation component intended to offset the destruction of 325 acres of wetlands.
Our position is the same as it ever was. There are alternatives to the new interstate that are far less costly and far less damaging to the environment than I 73. Specifically, the Conservation League commissioned a study concluding that upgrading S.C. 501 would serve the purpose of moving traffic efficiently to Myrtle Beach for about a tenth of the cost of the new interstate. If there was ever a time in South Carolina to save a billion dollars for the rest of our transportation needs, this is it!
Moving from the arena of unaffordable price tags for mega-projects to the realm of small investments with big returns, the following two pieces from the Post and Courier make persuasive cases for the modest proposal to dedicate one out of 7 lanes across the Ashley River to bicycles and pedestrians. The first, by Charleston Senator Marlon Kimpson, argues in favor of the lane because, as Senator Kimpson says, South Carolina ranks as one of the most dangerous states in the nation for walkers and bicyclists, and this crossing is certainly one of the most dangerous in the state.
He reminds us that the test of the bike lane revealed that rush hour traffic across the bridge was delayed by just one minute. The city council is poised to vote on the lane change on Tuesday. The Post and Courier, similarly, exhorts the council to pay attention to the data, from the lane test, and from the population and demographic changes at work in the region, all of which underscore the importance of accommodating travelers on foot, bicycle and bus, in addition to the ubiquitous single-occupant automobile.
If you live in Charleston, now is a great time to let your council member know you support this long-overdue improvement to the city’s quality of life.
Now for the fun part. As David Quick with the Post and Courier, reports, a local video company called Lunch and Recess has almost finished a movie about the trials of bicycling and walking in Charleston. Called “Backpedal,” the film focuses generally on Charleston, but frames the Ashley River bike lane as a litmus test for Charleston City Council’s willingness to usher the city into the 21st century — by embracing travel choices that are more affordable, (this is, among other things, a social equity issue), more environmentally responsible, and more human scale.
I have seen the trailer and it is great — funny, poignant, focused. If the council votes for the lane on Tuesday, the video will be released in the next month or so. If they vote against it, the film-makers will wait the controversy out before making the final cut, which is yet another reason for a positive council vote.
It’s going to be a busy week!