Advocating for improvements to Charleston roadways
By Ben Schools
Image by Charleston Mercury staff.
The conversation about Charleston’s infrastructure needs is a common one. Whether you’re from “off” or proudly raised on our slice of coastline, you have likely considered the ways in which the city would be much improved by a significant change in our roadways and how we’re able to move around. One look at ubiquitous, and dense, five o’clock traffic or the effects of a high tide and heavy rain on the peninsula could force a person to just stay home and avoid the hassle — or the danger.
However, although these issues, among others like the need for increased road maintenance, are real, no simple solution exists. The complicated answer lies in the city’s partnership with the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) and a focus on adaptation through new and alternative infrastructure.
South Carolina is fourth highest in the country in terms of the number of roads owned by our state DOT. Many folks are surprised to learn how many roads in Charleston are owned by the state. When out enjoying King Street one night, you probably wouldn’t guess you’re strolling along a state road. The same goes for East Bay Street, Rutledge Avenue and the majority of our roadways; the city owns less than ten percent of the roads within it. Thus, the DOT is key in deciding what maintenance projects take precedence. The city of Charleston is not allowed to touch those roads without asking the SCDOT for permission.
The South Carolina Department of Transportation headquarters are located in Columbia, S.C., and then there are seven district offices. Charleston’s affiliate office is District 6. Charleston’s own Department of Traffic and Transportation reports to them for maintenance efforts, permitting, questions, etc., and the county coordinates with them to pave roads. Charleston County collects funding for yearly pavings through a sales tax passed in 2004 and 2016 as well as the gas tax. SCDOT evaluates what roads get paved or improved, and the county provides some of the funding.
South Carolina’s District 6 contains a few thousand miles of state-owned roads, and the repaving cycle, based on the number of miles completed each year, is a 99-year cycle — let that sink in. There are exceptions, of course, but this means that many roads are, and will continue to be, neglected. This lengthy cycle is driven in part by budgets and is dictated to us by the state. In a conversation with City Councilman Mike Seekings, I learned that by refocusing budgets, we could certainly speed up that cycle somewhat, but probably not enough to keep up with the demand out there.
“We can’t just maintain roads or pave enough to take care of the issues we’ve got,” says Seekings. “We have to think about maintenance of currently existing infrastructure as well as building new and alternative infrastructure. It needs to be thought about holistically. We need to make sure we follow our own directives and now the state directives to build complete streets, having options for cars, bikes and pedestrians.”
Looking ahead, the fix for Charleston’s mobility issues will be a multifaceted, multipronged collection of solutions that accommodate those challenges particular to our city, like the need for better public transit or flood mitigation. And the city is subject to SCDOT permission in the vast majority of necessary projects.
“We work pretty well with the state government, but the state government drives a lot of what we do,” says Seekings. “We as a city are advocates for all forms of mobility and making sure that infrastructure is up to par on and off the peninsula. It’s an ongoing, everyday process of trying to do that.”
It remains true that funding will always be an issue — without the state’s financial backing, the city must find the dollars or a project never leaves the ground. But also, progressive design standards that address the multitude of infrastructure aspects like traffic, transit, bike and pedestrian, flood mitigation and so forth must be considered for the SCDOT to allow projects to move forward. Public roads must simultaneously serve all such priorities. The adoption of progressive design helps edge these projects forward beyond whatever is funding them.
Recent developments indicate the state’s receptivity to increased close collaboration with the city and seem to open the door a bit wider. On February 4, 2021, SCDOT Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall signed a “Complete Streets” policy, a new directive that requires the SCDOT to work with the city and the city’s partners to include walking, bicycling and transit needs in the road planning process. The plans will be uniquely tailored to the city as an integral part of design, construction and maintenance.
This serves as one example of progressive thinking beyond simply fixing the roads we have. How can we make our roads more conducive to the mobility needs of all people? How can we design lasting infrastructure that gives people options?
“I just don’t think we can design, build and pave our way out of our challenges with mobility,” says Mike Seekings. “We have to give people options, whether it be public transit, building ‘complete streets’ so people can opt to get out of their car on short haul commutes or also zoning to bring people closer to where they live, work and go to school.”
Clearly there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to handling the issues we face. We must tackle each challenge while viewing it holistically as we hope to improve roadways to serve each and every member of our community. Sure, roads need paving and flooding must be controlled, but there is much to consider in designing our future infrastructure.
We can understand the city government as an advocate and a catalyst for these needs, which they present to the listening ear of the state on our behalf. That said, all members of our community should continue to make their voices heard about what is necessary. Charleston is a beautiful place to live, and I believe it keeps growing brighter. Every person across our county deserves the benefits of improvements to our infrastructure, and we can hold high hopes for the years ahead while remaining vigilant on priorities.