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Rocky road to extending 526

Opening Salvo

Dear Mercury readers; it’s good to be back! Of course, I haven’t really gone anywhere — I’ve been at my desk here at Mercury World Headquarters, penning all the staff-bylined pieces you’ve liked, not penning whichever ones you didn’t like and editing like a madman — correcting apostrophe-“s” errors and trying to get all the writer’s hanging prepositions out.

No, the recent absence of “Opening Salvo” has mostly been due to our good fortune: When our talented writers are writing a little long and our ad sales are up, something has to be cut. And since I can still add value by, say, sweeping the office floors or refilling the mimeograph machine, this column is very, very easy to cut.

[A quick aside for readers who own businesses: Ad sales are up, because this fine publication reaches tens of thousands of eyes every month! Call our ad sales department today to make our readers your clients.]

And on the topic of adding value and making sound financial decisions, the State Infrastructure Bank has decided to kill funding for the I-526 extension. This is a contentious topic, of course, and as a lifelong John’s Islander, I know plenty of folks both for and against. Further, as someone who looks askance at anything costing more than five dollars, I understand why the SIB couldn’t quite come to terms with spending $720 million dollars on an eight-mile road.

So what if the whole thing was just a little cheaper? Wouldn’t this be an easier pill for all parties to swallow if it didn’t have a three-quarters-of-a-billion dollar price tag?

Charleston County Council; State Infrastructure Bank … don’t worry. Ol’ Cousin Robbie’s got this one figured out.

First, the biggest expense has to be the roadbed itself. So I called around to see how much #57 commercial-grade slag rock was going for in the Lowcountry; it seems like the going price is about 52 bucks a square yard. That means $720 million dollars should cover 13.85 million square yards of slag.

Now, from what I know about Charleston drivers, there’s no sense in this thing having more than two lanes, as some edjit’s always going to be doing five under in the left-hand lane. So two 12-foot wide lanes means eight yards of width for every yard of length, leaving us with 1.73 million yards of length, or more helpfully, 983 miles long.

Hey - this whole thing’s only supposed to be eight miles long … what about the extra 975 miles? Well, you’re right — it can’t be all three-foot deep slag. We could spend some of our savings on a decorative top layer: My fellow says Carolina River Rock is currently going for around $105 a cubic yard. That means for less than three million dollars — 0.4 percent of the current project price tag! — we could put a thick layer of smooth river rock atop that rough slag. Now that might seem like a luxury, but remember, thousands of visitors will be driving on this road on their way to see Angel Oak, or stay on Kiawah. And they’re worth it.

Heck, everyone will want a drive on this version of the 526 extension. Even Councilwoman Anna Johnson might take the drive to visit her constituents on the east side of the Stono River for a change. There’s a lot of us over here, Anna!

Aye, crossing the Stono … there’s the rub. We could just keep laying slag — the Stono’s only about 20 feet deep at the crossing location — but that seems silly. Better to just take the dozens of old boats abandoned in the Ashley River anchorage, tow them to the site and lash them together to make a floating bridge. Kill two birds with one stone, that’s what I always say.

If you think that’s preposterous, look into the highway systems of Washington State. If you ever drive from central Seattle to its eastern suburbs, you cross a giant pontoon bridge. They’re great in seismically active areas (like Charleston!) and you never have to worry about broken cables causing the bridge to collapse into the water below … because the bridge is already sitting on top of the water below.

It’s brilliant, trust me.

So we have our road bed, our road surface and our bridges planned out. What’s left? Well, the current proposed I-526 extension includes a planted median. Heck, that’s free: Just don’t put any road in the middle of the road, fellas! Simple. Signage is a necessity too. We’ll just paint the backs of all the extra “BRIDGE OUT” signs they made for the Wando Bridge emergency this spring.

Oh, I almost forgot lighting. My redesigned 526 is beautifully illuminated by the Almighty himself during the day and on cloudless nights around the time of a full moon. Partial lighting of the southern stretch is achieved by routing it directly through James Island County Park (just like the real plan!): Nobody puts on a better light show than James Island County Park.

So there you go. The I-526 extension on a shoestring budget. People might complain about riding down a loose gravel road, but remember — the current approved project is for a low-speed parkway, and what better way to get folks to slow down than a charming gravel road? All that rock will make for so much country charm that they’ll be reprinting “Johns Island Rural Forever” bumper stickers, just for fans of my new extension.

Finally, you may reasonably ask: "Rob, how’d you get to be an expert on road construction? Aren’t you just another layabout writer whose only talent involves remembering grammar rules from fifth grade?"

No, my friends. I know about roadbuilding because I’ve spent this spring laying down thousands of dollars of gravel myself. Because after a life of living on once-sleepy Johns Island, we’re packing up and moving to Wadmalaw, where things are quiet and our new driveway is half-a-mile long.

All that rock ain’t cheap (I don't have anyone in Columbia subsidizing it) … but there’s no way in heck I’m staying on John’s Island once 526 gets there.

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