The Bridge to Sustainability

cross island expressway

Cross Island Expressway: Photo courtesy of Marianne Ballantine

WHAT DOES “SUSTAINABILITY” MEAN? It’s a popular moniker these days, like “green” and “natural.” But how can you prove if something is sustainable or not? Today’s post shows what sustainability looks like. Sometimes it even wears concrete. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina is a bustling resort and residential community. It has a colorful history and a rich ecosystem with vast salt marshes, old-growth forests, primordial wetlands, and plentiful wildlife. And this isle has about 34,000 full-time residents plus several million tourists per year. And in the “the season” (May-September), we have traffic. Hilton Head Island is shaped like a foot almost sliced in half lengthwise by Broad Creek. The 7-mile river is the ecological heart of the Island. For 20 centuries or more, Islanders had to take a slow boat or make the long, time-consuming trek on trails and plantation roads around the creek to reach the other end of the Island. In 1956, the State of S.C. constructed a two-lane “swing bridge” to the Island. U.S. Highway 278 was paved to accommodate the predicted influx of cars. Gas cost 20 cents a gallon. People came to this quiet hamlet and real estate sales began. The first hotels opened. Soon courses were developed. The wake-up call. Reality struck in 1974. A barge collided with our one and only mainland connection, the James Byrnes Bridge. For six long weeks, no one could enter or leave the Island. People now understood that Island living is an adventure, and a tad vulnerable. The Town of Hilton Head Island incorporated in 1983. The population had grown 600 percent. More than one-half million tourists visited the island annually. Traffic clogged William Hilton Parkway. This lengthened local school bus routes, slowed fire fighting vehicles, and impacted EMS response time. People began talking about the need for a second highway on the Island. The debate over a new road heated into the 1990s. On one side, the Town leaders, emergency services, business interests, and civic groups supported the program to improve the quality of Island life. Opposing the road were residents living near the proposed route and several conservationists. Urgent civic interests vs. not-in-my backyard rage and theoretical nature protection: this was a no-win argument in the community. The situation begged a Third Way—beyond win-loose. People, Places, and Things In the 1980s and 1990s I wrote extensively in my newspaper columns about how to create a better highway on Hilton Head Island. Ballantine Environmental Resources worked pro bono on this project to assure the highway would: save lives and also not impact local communities (people); (2) preserve the island’s upland and wetland ecosystem (places); and (3) enhance the local economy (things). In a collaborative effort employing new environmental techniques, federal and state agencies, the Town of Hilton Head Island, and the S.C. Sierra Club agreed upon a design for Cross Island Parkway: the state’s first sustainable highway. Today, when you travel on this road, look for:

  • Broad Creek Bridge. The four-lane Charles Fraser Bridge crosses sensitive tidal salt marsh habitat. Scuppers attached under the bridge collect all stormwater and convey it away from the Creek. The pilings in the creek provide reef-like structures for shellfish, sessile (attaching) organisms, and gamefish.
  • Wetland basins. Freshwater wetlands were created at the foot of the bridge to capture highway runoff. The bald cypress and willow wetlands filter nutrients and remove runoff water through evapotranspiration (evaporation from water and vegetation).
  • Natural sound buffers. A complex of earthen berms, native plantings, masonry walls, and highway grade changes minimize sound pollution.
  • Alternative transportation. Bicycle trails, lanes, and pedestrian pathways allow for non-vehicular use of the parkway route.
  • Tolls, not taxes. The highway is funded with user fees, not public taxes.

Sustainability Teaches The Cross Island Parkway adventure taught me enduring lessons:

  • Finding the balance takes patience. Stakeholders need time to come to agreement. Some never will agree.
  • Have a spine. Expect criticism for seeking solutions.
  • Believe in new thinking. People, places, and things thinking is “WE” thinking.
  • Remember who you are working for: Future generations, habitats, and those organisms without a voice.
  • Be hard on the problem, soft on the people. Physical solutions are a matter of observation, study, and design. People solutions require empathy, understanding, and leadership.
  • Do it again. What if all highways could be sustainable? Let’s get started!

Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the future. –  Gro Harlem Brundtland, Special Envoy to the U.N. Secretary General on Climate Change.