The history of St. John’s Island, near-rural surburb just west of the city of Charleston, South Carolina, is nearly as old as the country itself, so change doesn’t come easy.
Convincing residents to allow a major road upgrade — Maybank Highway, which connects the island to the city by way of neighboring James Island — has required a lot of cooperation.
“It was originally intended to be a widening project,” Jim Armstrong, Charleston County Deputy Administrator of Transportation and Public Works, told Palmetto Business Daily. “A lot of people on that island aren’t ready for change yet — they did not support a widening project.”
Long before sessions where Armstrong said members of the Urban Land Institute held an “intervention” — bringing together its experts, Armstrong’s team and area leaders —it first had to be funded. That funding came after voters approved a half-cent sales tax in Charleston County in 2004, aimed at raising roughly $1.3 billion dollars for roads projects.
That funding was complemented by a matching federal grant, but with that federal money came another set of stipulations, beyond what the county and Johns Island wanted.
“We struggled with our environmental permits for a very long time, I’m talking years, and the federal requirements did not allow us to break the project up into phases.” Armstrong said. “We pretty much came to an impasse.”
As things began to look bleak, Armstrong said he and area leaders came back to the table and discussed options. Removing the federal funding portion, they agreed, would allow the project to proceed in three phases under the agreed-upon design.
The Charleston County Council voted in 2014 to redistribute the $15 million in federal funds for the Maybank project, putting $6.5 million towards a new intersection for Folly and Camp roads, according to the Post and Courier.
Last October, the county was able to move forward with the first phase of the project, which resurfaced Maybank from River Road to Main and Bohicket roads, adding sidewalks and a multi-use path through the island’s three “business nodes,” Armstrong said.
As of early June, he said the county was “closing in” on designs of a widened section of Maybank Highway from the bridge to River Road. Currently, the bridge narrows to a one-lane road. Bike and walking paths will be added to the section as well.
In its final phase, the project designers envision a “pitchfork” — so called as it will add two roadways parallel to Maybank Highway that divert traffic east of River Road and alleviate a growing congestion problem without significantly impacting the historical or environmental treasures in the area.
That last quality seems important to the residents of Johns Island. Among the 70 percent of participants at an April 2012 design meeting who support or “generally supported” the design, a majority cited “preserves character” among their reasons for approval.
“Maybank Highway, that’s quite an interesting project...but a good project,” Armstrong said.