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County Council, February 28

Widening of Maybank Highway – Is a compromise possible?
Parking fees to rise in County’s downtown garages
Warwick Jones

One wonders how it happened. Here was the City squaring off against the County in regards to changes along Maybank Highway. Change had been planned for some years and indeed voters in a referendum had signaled their approval of the County’s plans. But the changes planned were within the City of Charleston. Its views were very different. Why wasn’t there cooperation between the County and the City in shaping the proposed change?

How to protect Johns Island?
Boiled down, the issue is simple. Those opposing the County’s plan fear, that like the extension of I-526, the widening will open the floodgates to traffic and development, and the pastoral ambience of Johns Island will be destroyed. The proponents say that traffic is presently a nightmare and something needs to be done. The residents of Seabrook and Kiawah Islands generally would like to see the road widened and indeed extended all the way to their communities.

Yesterday’s meeting of Council, beginning with the Planning session, opened with a presentation by Roadwise, the entity formed by the Country to plan road development in the County using sales tax funds. At issue were the changes proposed for Maybank Highway from the Stono River Bridge to Main Road. The conceptual plan had been completed. Roadwise now was seeking initial financing - $30 million- for design. It detailed the development options it had considered and made a recommendation for a 5 lane highway along the 3.8 mile stretch. It made no reference to the proposed plan of the City. Indeed, the presentation was rather bland of discussion. The options considered were ranged from “do nothing” through varying degrees of widening to ultimately a 5 lane highway.

Although there seemed to have been little dialogue with the City, the Roadwise presentation clearly indicated that there were meetings where the public had expressed their views – these views were largely positive. The broad intention of the County had also been indicated in the 2006 bond referendum. And also noted was the fact that the City had previously supported the widening project.

County discusses issue with Mayor Riley in executive session
Citizens were denied the opportunity to hear the discussion that took place on Council and with Mayor Riley who planned to make a presentation to Council. The Council met in executive session with Mayor Riley. It later reconvened and on a motion made by Council member Condon, instructed Roadwise staff to meet with City staff and the SC Department of Transport and come up with some compromise plan within the next 2 weeks.

City presents its plan
After such a vote, a presentation by the City may have been moot but Council asked Mayor Riley to make it anyhow. The Mayor conceded that the City had originally concurred with the County’s plan but in recent years had begun working with the Johns Island community to formulate a land use/ transportation plan. The plan was concluded only late last year. He said that it has the endorsement of the residents of Johns Island. It also would help preserve the present character of Johns Island. He added later that the problem was not the state of the highway as much as the intersections. And as the presentation by City staff indicated, the City plan would alleviate this traffic congestion at the intersections by access roads from Maybank Highway from points close to the Stono River Bridge, to points north and south of River Road. The presentation also showed the broad plans of City on Johns Island on the urban side of the Urban Growth Boundary. The plans called for connectivity of many existing roads and likely future roads. This would also ensure that there would be less traffic on Maybank Highway.

City’s presentation convincing but there are issues
We confess that the City’s presentation was convincing. If indeed the intersections are the problem, its plan should speed up the traffic flow and ameliorate the present problems with out contributing to the destruction of Johns Island’s character,

But is it so simple?

• What of the folk on Seabrook and Kiawah Islands? They generally want a better highway servicing their communities – But as somebody pointed out, the residents of these communities total about 3500. Are they to be the tail wagging the dog? But as affluent communities, they also contribute handsomely to County tax revenue.
• What is the cost of the City’s plan? The $30 million for the County’s plan is in place. It will be complex to change the plan. Of the total, $15 million is to come from the bond issue which voters approved in a referendum and which also referred to the County’s plan. Will there need to be another referendum? The other $15 million comes via CHATS and from federal funding; there are obligations such as traffic studies that have to be met.
• What do Johns Islanders really think? The Urban Growth Boundary covers only 13% of Johns Island. The City's plan relates to only this portion of the island, much of which is within the City. When the City speaks of the approval of Johns Islanders can it speak for the whole of Johns Island?
• What is the cost of construction of both plans? A director of Johns Island Water Company noted that the widening proposed by the County would force the utility to relocate its main conduit. This would cost $2 million and possible $2.5 million if Rights of Way had to be acquired. It has borrowed to its maximum to finance a new main and did not have the capacity of borrowing more.
• Similarly, what is the cost of construction of the access roads proposed by the City? It may be that the City’s plan is more expensive.

We hope the City and County can come to a compromise. But to us it seems hard to reconcile the two positions and that it will be a choice of one or the other.

Why did County wait so long to raised parking fees?
Council member McKeown sometimes gets emotional about issues on Council. To his credit, his emotion never overwhelms his reasoning. Yesterday he was hostile, and with reason. The issue was the raising of parking fees at the two City garages in downtown Charleston. Broadly, staff was seeking a 30-40% increase. It also noted that the revenue generated by the increase was needed to finance the projected $5.8 million cost for essential maintenance and repairs. This spending was also expected to extend the life of the garages.

It was not the increase that stirred the Council member, it was the fact that this was the first increase proposed in 10 years. Why had staff waited so long to make the recommendation for a fee increase? Better to have small increments each year, keeping up with inflation than a massive increase after 10 years.

Without an increase, County may need to raise the millage rate
The Council member and others noted that the increase in fees was hefty and some members were uncomfortable. Staff stated that without the increase, the County would have to draw on the General Fund to cover the maintenance. This could well lead to a millage increase. The broad 30-40% increase would raise the necessary $5.8 million over the next 4 years.

Fees tend to be set in line with those of City owned garages
Defending the long period since the last increase, staff said that fees tend to be set in line with those of the City-owned garages. The City had lifted its rates only late last year. The change would bring the County’s into line. But staff also noted that even with the proposed increases, the rates would be considerably lower than rates at some of the private parking garages on the peninsula.

Council member seeks breaks for monthly users
Council member Thurmond suggested that the monthly rates be raised by a smaller percentage to ameliorate the impact on workers downtown. But staff pointed out that this would cause a shortfall in funding for the repairs. The Council member suggested that the daily and hourly rates be raised by a greater amount than planned to cover such a shortfall. Tourists should bear a heavier burden.

Rates to rise by about 30-40%
Eventually Council acquiesced to the staff request. Rates for the two garages – Cumberland Street, and King and Queen Street will rise from $0.75 to a $1 for the first and second half hours. The hourly rate thereafter will also rise from $0.75 to $1 and the daily rate from $15 to $20. The monthly rate will rise from $100 to $140 at Cumberland Street and to $170 at King and Queen Streets. But lower rates will be possible for those patrons requiring only the week days, or week nights, or week days during normal business hours only.

If more tourists come, where will they park?
As a resident of the Peninsula, it was concerning to hear that the garages were at capacity or close to capacity in the morning hours. Staff said space became available latter in the day but our impression was that it was not much. With the City and County encouraging tourism, where were tourists going to park in future? Already the City is burdened by traffic congestion. It seems likely to get worse. And although residents would like fewer cars on the streets, they are also unlikely to welcome more parking garages – they don’t exactly meld into to the historic architecture of the City.

Underground wiring for the County?
Council member Thurmond expressed the desire to put all wiring in the County underground. He thought this would be good from both an aesthetic and safety point of view. The idea could be put to citizens in a referendum.

His suggestion was not greeted with enthusiasm though it was not dismissed. Chairman Scott said that Council had considered the issue some years ago, SCE&G at the time was opposed to the plan though he did not say why. He also added that the expense of putting wires underground would be met by citizens and not by the County. Staff is to look into the issue.

We would suggest that the County consult with the City of Charleston if it wants details of cost. The City has discussed underground wiring with some neighborhoods but in some cases, a community has balked at the cost. It can run as high as $3000 per house we understand, and that is just for the wiring along the street. There is a further cost to connect the houses to the underground wiring. But perhaps the greatest problem is the location of transformers. They have to be placed above ground. They are large and few residents want them in their yards.

So good luck to the County! Underground wiring is something that most people would welcome but fewer would be prepared to pay for it. And the question can be asked what as what about the communities that already have underground wiring, such as below- Broad. Do they participate in the referendum? Do they contribute anything to funding for those areas which dont have underground wiring?

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