A new survey conducted by the University of South Carolina found that nearly 3 out of every 4 Charleston County residents answered in support of a controversial project to extend Interstate 526. The project, which would connect the interstate’s current terminus at U.S. Highway 17 with downtown Charleston, has been debated for three decades. Conservationists have long opposed it, worried that it would hurt the largely undeveloped marshes around Johns and James Islands.
The survey of 5,000 homes in the area most likely to be affected by the extension of the Mark Clark Expressway revealed that 72 percent of residents were in favor of completing “Alternative G,” which would create a parkway, rather than a traditional interstate. About 44.5 percent of respondents answered the survey by mail or phone. The research was conducted by the state Department of Transportation (SCDOT) and the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research. The agency says it cost $34,000 to conduct.
“What we learned here is that the public down here overwhelmingly wants this road done,” House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston), who supports the project, told South Carolina Radio Network.
Harrell said the survey proved that environmental groups have exaggerated the amount of local opposition to the project. But Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, says the survey was set up so that lawmakers were guaranteed to get the answer they wanted.
“The way this question was asked was simply ‘would you like another road that would reduce traffic congestion?’ Of course more people than not will say yes,” Beach said, “It doesn’t mean it’s a state priority. In fact, it isn’t listed on the state’s list of transportation priorities.”
The results of July’s survey are significant because SCDOT has declined taking over the project from Charleston County officials unless it is fully funded and has local support. The state Transportation Infrastructure Bank committed the full estimated $558 million for the project in August. The state Transportation Commission plans to discuss the survey results at its September 20 workshop.
Beach said he’s never heard of a highway project being decided by a survey. He says the question was biased because it did not ask respondents to factor in the project’s cost and only focused on residents of Charleston County neighborhoods that would benefit from its construction. “The idea that you would only survey those people… is ludicrous,” he said.
But Harrell said the Coastal Conservation League and other opponents are part of a small, but loud, minority. “People in the Lowcountry have expected (I-526) to be finished since it was announced 30 years ago,” he said, “And what I hear on a regular basis from people down here is, ‘when are you guys going to finish that road that you started?'”