Transportation Panel Hands I-526 Opponents Major Victory

September 27, 2012

Investigative Reports

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I-526The South Carolina Transportation Commission threw up a huge road block Wednesday in front of a controversial half-billion-dollar plan to extend Interstate 526 in Charleston County.

By a 7-0 vote, the commission, which governs the state Department of Transportation, refused to take over the completion of I-526 across Johns and James Islands. The commissioners’ unanimous decision came during a packed meeting at DOT’s headquarters in Columbia.

The vote means that the Transportation Department won’t pay for managing the project should Charleston County Council approve it, officials told The Nerve after Wednesday’s vote. If given the go-ahead at the county level, DOT could still manage the project, though the the department would have to be reimbursed for those costs, officials said.

The South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board earlier this year voted to shift the responsibility for completing the project from the county to DOT, pending approval by both entities.County Council signed off on that plan, leaving it up to the DOT commission.

The Infrastructure Bank Board approved $558 million to fund the project, which would be covered by the sale of bonds. If County Council drops the project, the county would owe $11.6 million to the bank for money already spent on design and environmental studies, and right-of-way acquisitions, according to officials.

County Council last year voted against extending the highway but reversed itself after the Infrastructure Bank Board threatened to seek repayment of the $11.6 million.

I-526, or the Mark Clark Expressway, is a near-20-mile half circle that stops at the Savannah Highway in West Ashley on the west end of Charleston and at U.S. 17 on the city’s eastern side near Mount Pleasant. Charleston County proposed to expand the road to the James Island Connector by adding eight miles and extra lanes.

Proponents of the project, which has been on the drawing board for years, say that the road would wipe out traffic problems and promote safety. Critics claim it would harm the environment, and that the state has other pressing road needs.

The S.C. Transportation Commission said Wednesday that it doesn’t want control over it.

“The reason we’re here today is because a week prior to our last meeting, I made a decision to take the discussion of the I-526 project off the significant projects listed,” said the commission’s chairman, Eddie Adams. “It is not a SCDOT project.”

Commission members said the DOT should focus on more pressing road concerns throughout the state.

“We need to bring the existing roads up to a condition where the people of South Carolina are proud to ride on them and enjoy riding on them,” said commission member John Edwards.  “We’ve got existing roads and bridges that need massive work. I think we need to bring those up to a good standard before we start building new roads.”

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who supports the I-526 extension, said the commission’s decision helps Charleston move closer to finishing the project.

“I hope that upon reflection that [County Council] will vote to move forward. We need it,” said Riley, who described the extension as a “coronary-bypass operation” necessary to prevent a “heart attack” from happening on traffic-congested roads.

“By 2030, there are several places on Savannah Highway where you will not be able to move,” Riley continued. “If it’s not built now, it’ll never be built. It’s needed. The community wants it. The funds are there. And these are not funds we can use other projects.”

There is plenty of community opposition to the project, however.

After Wednesday’s vote, Lowcountry residents said they were glad the DOT voiced a firm “no” to project.

“We still have more than half a billion dollars being spent on a highway that will help Johns Island residents get where they want to be four minutes faster and James Island residents 30, 60 seconds faster,” said Alice Muller, who lives in West Ashley. “All those drivers in South Carolina that have to drive over inadequate roads because there’s no funding to fix them should be mad as hell.”

Coastal Conservation League project manager Jake Libaire told The Nerve that his organization will continue to push Charleston County Council to kill the project.

“This is a low priority for the county and for the state,” he said. “The county would be wise to vote the project down.”

The Coastal Conservation League joined the South Carolina Policy Council – the parent organization ofThe Nerve – and grassroots and civil rights activists last month in calling for sweeping government reforms in the state. Dana Beach, the Coastal Conservation League’s executive director, described the I-526 project as an example of reckless spending by state officials.

The proposed government reforms include opening the state’s secretive incentives process; forcing all state agencies, including the Legislature and executive agencies, to follow the state’s open-records law; limiting lobbyists’ influence by shortening legislative sessions; and enforcing state laws requiring an open-budget process.

Reach Legette at (803) 254-4411 or derek@thenerve.org.