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County Council May 29, 2008

Johns Island Crossway up for consideration
Issues over HUD and Greenbelt grants
Warwick Jones

Yesterday’s Finance Committee meeting was much longer than it should have been. Some Council members "tilted at windmills", and at length. The meeting opened with a presentation by the consultant hired by the County on an expressway across Johns Island to alleviate traffic congestion on River Road and Maybank Highway. The project at this stage is merely a possibility. It was strongly promoted by Council member Thurmond who spoke a number of times about its virtue. There were clearly members of Council, and certainly amongst the citizens attending the meeting, who were skeptical of the plan.

A presentation on a possible Johns Island Crossway was made some weeks ago to Council by a citizen resident in Seabrook Island. A similar but less detailed presentation was made yesterday though we suspect that Council members had far more detail in front of them than we saw in the audience.

Public supports new highway
The consultant noted that 166 persons had attended a public hearing on the issue and the majority was in favor of the new highway. If constructed, it would probably terminate at I-526 and end at Bohicket, It would run somewhere between Maybank Highway and River Road. A new highway was preferable over widening either River Road or Maybank Highway, the consultant said. A widening would disrupt established communities and it would be costly to develop Right of Ways.

Cost would be over $160 million
The cost of the new road would be about $60 million but could rise to over $160 million with intersections and Right of Way acquisitions.

Council member Schweers got attention when he remarked that the Council had a purpose in preserving the rural ambience of Johns Island. But here we were considering another major road project which coupled with the I-526 extension and Maybank changes was taking road spending on the Island to near $0.75 billion!

The consultant noted that the road would have few points of access and would be designed primarily to take traffic directly to Seabrook and Kiawah Islands. Traffic going to other parts of Johns Island would largely use River Road and Maybank Highway.

Should it be a toll road?
Council member Thurmond suggested that the Crossway should have a toll. The folk on Kiawah ands Seabrook Islands recognized the problems and he inferred they would be happy to pay the toll – its level was not estimated at yesterday’s meeting. But if the cost is $160 million, the annual interest and amortization is likely to be about $12 million a year or $1 million a month, in our view. This is the amount of net revenue that would have to be raised. The cost of administration would have to be added. Sorry we are hard pressed to believe that the folk on the Islands would pay a toll of a magnitude to cover such an expense!

It is also interesting that nobody yet seems to be factoring in the impact of higher fuel costs in projecting traffic on Johns Island. All projections assume a sizable increase over the next 15-20 years. With prediction of $200 a bbl oil within a few years and gas prices of $8 a gallon or more, we bet that automobile use will decline, or at least stop growing at the rate of the past. It maybe time to think about going back to the drawing board.

Public hearings are to be held again on the proposed highway and the Council member asked that every effort be made to highly publicize them.

Council Member has issue with HUD grants
The distribution of grants made by the County from HUD funds was also up for consideration last night. HUD is providing $1.5 million for distribution and the County needed to match it with $120,000. The grants can be seen by pressing .Download file

The recipients are determined by a panel appointed by the County and municipalities. And as the County Administrator said, the HUD scrupulously administers the grants. The Community Development Block Grants and HOME grants have been made for years by HUD and the County has always been a recipient.

Council members McKeown contested that grants, and sought to distinguish the difference between “public good” and “public purpose”. The grants should be for the latter and not the former. In his opinion, many of the grants were for the former, an area that should not be the County’s responsibility.

The Administrator and other Council members told the Council member that HUD made up its own rules and the County abided by these rules. It was not its role to argue. Summary – just take the money and don’t argue because there is no purpose!

The argument went on, and on the vote, Councilmember McKeown and Thurmond voted against the grants.


An issue with a Greenbelt grant too

And then there was the dispersal of funds for the latest series of Urban Grants under the greenbelt program. North Charleston and the City of Charleston had successfully made applications to the Urban Grants Review Committee and were approved by the PRC. But one of the grants was for land purchased from the Trust for Public Land. Council member Thurmond took exception. Why acquire it if it were already protected? The Council should vote against it.

As Council members told him, the purchase was allowed under the Greenbelt ordinance. Indeed, there had been other instances where the County had finance purchases from non- profits. In these cases, the non profits had acted quickly to secure the land in the knowledge and understanding that they would be reimbursed by the County. The Trust had helped North Charleston in its quest to secure a string of purchases along the waterfront near the Noissete project.

We would have also pointed out that the municipalities are allocated 30% of greenbelt funds and the funds are split thereafter according to the distribution of population. Consequently, each of the municipalities knows the amount of money they can spend on acquisitions. The Urban Grants Review Committee exercises an oversight role to ensure that the acquisitions meet guidelines. But beyond that, it is up to the municipalities.