By Barney Blakeney
In the past, highway construction usually meant devastation to minority communities. Local examples tell a sad story of displaced residents, disconnected families, divided communities and lost generational homes. As the I-526 WEST widening project commences managers vow that won’t be the case with the $1 billion, approximately 10-year undertaking.
An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is being prepared for the I-526 WEST project which runs from Paul Cantrell Boulevard in West Ashley to Virginia Avenue in North Charleston. The South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) currently identifies the segment of I-526 between I-26 and Virginia Avenue as the most congested segment of interstate highway in the state and aims to increase capacity and improve operations at the I-526/I-26 interchange and along the mainline of I-526 from Paul Cantrell Boulevard to Virginia Avenue.
Four predominantly Black North Charleston communities will be impacted by the work in North Charleston – Ferndale, Highland Terrace, Liberty Park and Russelldale. Joy Riley, program manager for the project said a lot has changed since the late 1950s when I-26 construction was begun. New federal laws imposed in 1994 today offer rights and protections to property owners and residents. Not only must their rights be considered and protected, stakeholders also must have input in the decisions that determine the project’s scope.
To that end, SCDOT in November opened the I-526 Lowcountry Corridor Community Office at 5627 Rivers Avenue in Gas Lite Square. The I-526 Lowcountry Corridor Community Office is a place to meet one-on-one with the project team and connect with resource specialists such as right-of-way relocation experts. Their goal is to answer questions about the project and how it may impact homes, businesses or daily commutes. The community liaisons and right-of-way specialists have served nearly 100 community members since opening.
SCDOT will host an Open House at the new I-526 Lowcountry Corridor Community Office Saturday, January 25, from 1-4 pm. Community members with questions or concerns are encouraged to attend. Community members, property owners and renters within the study area are encouraged to tour the new office, ask questions and voice concerns. Right-of-way specialists will be on-hand to speak with both property owners and renters about their rights. Spanish translation services will be provided.
Right Of Way acquisition, the most complicated aspect of the project, should begin in 2022 and continue through 2025. Some 150 properties will be impacted, Riley said. Construction is expected to begin about 2026 with completion of the project anticipated by 2030.
Because community input not only is mandated, but is vital, project managers organized the I-526 Lowcountry Corridor Community Advisory Committee to help provide input. The committee that includes residents and other stakeholders is tasked with offering insight into various areas of concern including helping to develop a mitigation package, Riley said.
A quick synopsis of the ROW benefits that impacted individuals may be eligible for are: Property Owners – Fair Market Value of property and home based on appraisal; Moving Expenses; Real Estate Services (*May be eligible for Supplemental Housing Payment if currently available comparable replacement housing is priced higher than appraised value of current home).
Tenants/Renters – Moving Expenses; Real Estate Services for identifying replacement housing
(*May be eligible for Supplemental Rent Payments if comparable rental units are priced higher than current monthly rent). NOTE on RENTERS: SCDOT works with renters to encourage them to consider using relocation benefits payments as a down payment on a home if they are interested in home ownership and can assist in creating access to additional resources such as credit counseling and first time home buyer counseling to work with those individuals who would like to become homeowners. And SCDOT is purchasing properties to facilitate building affordable housing through partnerships with developers.
Businesses – Moving Expenses; Business Re-establishment Expenses; Fair Market Value of property and improvements based on appraisal; and Real Estate Services.
Jenaris Bannister of the Liberty Park community and Tony Grasso, president of the Russelldale Neighborhood Association are members of the advisory committee.
Bannister, whose parents’ property was impacted by the construction of I-526 decades ago, said the new construction is a more fair process than that his father encountered. Some 20-30 properties will be affected in his community, Bannister said. Some property owners are taking advantage of the information and resources available, but many others need to make themselves better informed, he said. “You’ve got to attend the meetings,” he said
Tony Grasso thinks the new construction not only is necessary, but will bring positive change to the declining community. He said misinformation proliferated during North Charleston’s November municipal elections were designed to e said misinformation proliferated by some political candidates in North Charleston’s November misguide residents, but government negligence doesn’t exist as it did in the past, he said. Regarding community support for the project Grasso said, “I can’t give you a formula for success, but I know the formula for failure is trying to please everybody.”