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County Council, February 13

A traffic study for City’s proposal for Maybank Highway
City has an effective veto power over development
Warwick Jones

Resolution of the issue between the City and County to widen Maybank Highway may be months away. Indeed, it is possible there will be no resolution. At the last meeting of County Council, staff was instructed to meet with that of the City and the DOT to attempt a compromise between the two plans. As instructed, staff met but there was no compromise. However, there was an agreement that a detailed traffic study was necessary to draw a proper conclusion.

Council agreed to the traffic study, and also to fund $17,000 of its estimated $68,000 cost. The $17,000 would come out that amount already allocated from the half cent sales tax for the Maybank Highway project. Funding for the balance was unclear. The City indicated that it would possibly pick up $34,000 with the hope of passing off $17,000 to the Coastal Conservation League.

Members still skeptical
Council member Thurmond remained skeptical about the City's plan. The plan devised by County’s Roadwise, to construct a four-lane highway to connect with I-526, would solve the problem of traffic congestion. The widening project could be completed by 2011 and traffic studies had indicated that it would succeed in its purpose. He said it was surprising that the City had not undertaken a detailed traffic study to support its proposal. The City was relying on another two roads being constructed to alleviate traffic congestion, and also connectivity through other roads, some yet to be developed. The fruition of the full City plan could take 20 years. He also voiced some resentment against “certain municipalities” that have history of “my way or no way”. Others pointed out that Roadwise in its traffic study, had deemed the City plan inadequate.

“Josh” Martin, Director of Planning, Preservation and Development for the City, said that the County had not considered all of the factors relating to the City’s plan when it did its traffic study. He also said that the City expects the cost of its plan to be no more than the $30 million projected for the County's plan.

Our reading of the Council’s mood was skepticism towards the City's plan. Council member Condon, a consistent supporter of Mayor Riley seemed the only member in favor. Council member Pryor noted that if it took 90 days for the traffic study to be completed, as estimated, escalating prices of labor and materials could add $360,000 to the cost of the project. Presently, there is $30 million set aside for funding.

Possible legal problems as well
Other Council members spoke again of the possible legal problems relating to the adoption of the City's plan. The County's plan to widen to four lanes had been included in a bond referendum. City Attorney Dawson opined that another referendum was needed to seek citizens’ approval for the City plan.

City has effective veto power
But it was Chairman Scott that raised perhaps the most important point. He reminded Council that the City virtually had veto power over the County’s planned construction. The widening was on the urban side of the Urban Growth Boundary, and most of the highway is contained within the City boundaries. He said to construct the road without the City's approval would just not be possible.

So the traffic study will be done and the County is probably hoping that it will indicate the impracticability of the City's plan. And if the study does indicate this, Josh Martin said the City would acquiesce to the County's plan. But should the study prove the City's plan viable, we are unsure as to what happens.

Discussion between City and County Staff has been on going
We chatted to staff during an executive session and asked why the City and County had not cooperated over the project and why did it come to a confrontation at the last Finance Committer meeting. We were told that there had been many meetings between the County and City over the last year but no resolution could be achieved. To keep the Roadwise project roiling, the issue needed to come to a head before a Council meeting.

But issues go beyond County and City
But staff said the issue is more than just that between the County and the City. Maybank Highway is State owned and the SC Department of Transport needs to be consulted. It may have issue with what the City plans. CHATS, which relies on Federal funding, may have its own views. (CHATS is providing $15 million of the $30 million funding) It is possible the CHATS will agree to the funding for the City plan, but it is not certain.

Encouraging report by Charleston Regional Development Alliance
With so much gloom over the course of the economy, it was pleasant to hear the report from the Charleston Regional Development Alliance. The Alliance is a group that serves the Tri County area with the purpose, inter alia, of inducing corporations to invest in the region. It has an approximate $1.5 million budget and a full time staff of 8 or 9. It is funded by the Counties and the private sector.

The Alliance has clearly been successful and it is has been instrumental in bringing a number of corporations to the greater Charleston area. More recent success has been the joint venture of GE and SKF to make ball bearings, more facilities for Mediterranean Shipping, and new plants for TWS Precision and Midway Specialty Vehicles.

Many European companies looking to invest in SC
The spokesman for the Alliance noted that with the fall in the value of the US dollar, there were many European companies looking to invest in the US and in particular South Carolina.

The Charleston economy was “not bullet proof” but Charleston was considered an attractive place to invest. And because of past investments, the economy of the Tri State region was relatively robust and not suffering as some other parts of the nation. Requests for information from the Alliance were running well above the level of a year ago. So maybe Charleston’s economy may be propped up again by more foreign investment.

Council members learn about grants for water and septic systems
Council member Schweers was surprised to find that HUD, through CDBGs, funds the provision of water and septic system facilities for low income families. It seemed that all on Council were surprised, except Council member Inabinett. Citizens of his district (west of the Ashley) had successfully applied for most of the grants given in the County.

Northern and eastern parts of County missing out
Councilmember Schweers noted that few grants had been given to the rural northern and eastern parts of the County, in particular around McLellanville and Awendaw. The reason - the folk in these areas knew nothing about the grants. He asked Council to take steps to rectify this seeming inequity.

However there are not enough funds to satisfy all of the needs. Indeed, there was a long waiting list. Staff gave Council some options and it voted to allocate funds to each district weighted by the number of application from each district. It also will reallocate funds recaptured from past grants – money that had been allocated but not spent by the non profits. Staff estimated that $160,000 was available for recapture from 2006

Big backlog of applications
Presently there are about 300 applications for water and septic system grants. With an average cost of $6,000 per household, the County would need about $1.8 million of funding, well beyond the funds available of roughly $50,000 a year. Council member Darby, noting the importance of safe drinking water, suggested the County look beyond the CDBG money. Councilmember Schweers, a fiscal conservative, was not sure he wanted to go that far and to possibly contribute to a tax increase.

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