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County Council, May 17

Council seeks compromise over I-526
Is it even possible?

Warwick Jones

Is the I-526 issue still alive, or is it a corpse just waiting interment? We’d hazard that it’s the latter, but we can’t be sure. There is no doubt that a number of Council members and a large section of the public wish it buried. But some Council members and perhaps a large number of citizens still hope I-526 can be completed and mitigate the traffic congestion on Johns and James Islands.

At the Finance Committee meeting and the Council meeting that followed, Council members voted to rescind the decision made at the April 29 meeting for County staff to negotiate with the SC Department of Transportation (DOT) and the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) over a “no build agreement”. Council was told by staff and Council member Rawl that the “no build” placed the County in a default position on the $420 million that to be drawn from the SIB. This in turn placed an obligation on the County to return monies (about $11.6 million) that it had drawn under the grant. It also threatened the County’s AAA bond rating. Council members Condon, Schweers and Qualey voted against rescinding.

After the motion to rescind was passed, the Finance Committee and later, the Council voted on a motion to “direct the County Attorney to cure the default of the Intergovernmental Agreement as determined by the SIB on May 12, 2011 and through negotiations with the DOT to explore any opportunities regarding the Mark Clark Extension project and bring back alternatives for consideration by Council”. The motion passed with Council members Condon, Schweers, Qualey and Sass opposed. Council member Darby was absent for the Council vote but voted with the majority on all the Finance Committee motions.

The opening of the I-526 issue again brought out a large number of citizens, and judging by the stickers they wore, a majority opposed extending the road. Some were also confused as to what was happening. Mayors Riley and Summey spoke at the Finance Committee meeting and strongly expressed support for the completion of the extension, or specifically Alternative G proposed by the DOT. It seemed they hoped Council would completely reverse itself and draw down the $420 million to finance the completion. They did not address where the remaining approximate $70 million would come from to meet the full projected cost of about $490 million. Nor did they address the fact that the Town of James Island opposed the extension and that legally the Alternative G could not extend to James Island.

Council member Darby in making the original motion talked of compromise. Council member Johnson noted how divisive the issue over I-526 had become. It was because of the division in the community that she originally opposed the extension. But she now hoped that some compromise could be reached. Chairman Pryor had made a proposal that we believe had been put before the DOT, and reported by the Post and Courier on Tuesday, that the extension should terminate on Johns Island and not extend to James Island. The cost of this truncated version of the extension was an estimated $200 million. We thought we heard Council member Summey note that the SIB or DOT had rejected this plan.

The SIB seems to be very “hard nosed” about the County’s obligation to complete I-526 and the need for the County to return monies spent if it goes with the “no build” alternative. Requests by the County to use the funds or part of the funds for other road improvements were apparently rejected. The SIB says there is a lot of other deserving road projects around the state that need to be considered if the funds earmarked for I-526 are not used. It has given the County 60 days to repay the $11.6 million already drawn down. We also note that Senator Glenn McConnell and Representative “Chip” Limehouse are on the SIB board. We wonder as to whether the uncompromising attitude of the SIB to some extent reflects their desire to see I-526 completed rather than the exercise of a matter of principle.

Over 30 citizens spoke at the end of the Council meeting, the majority opposed to the extension of I-526. Many were angry that Council had ignored the overwhelming opposition expressed by the public to the extension. But a number also asked as to whether there was such opposition. Some speakers noted a poll conducted by the Post and Courier which reported that 70% of the respondents supported the completion of the project. As Mayor Riley suggested there was a silent majority in support. Another speaker claimed many citizens were unable to the public hearings because they began inconveniently at 5pm.

Speakers on both sides of the issue made much of traffic issues. The first was Mayor Riley who showed choke points on Johns and James Island roads in a power point presentation. These choke points would disappear if the extension were completed, he said. The extension would also facilitate evacuation if a hurricane were anticipated. He opined that lots of lives would be lost without the completion if a really severe hurricane hit the islands.

Others took issue with the Mayor, claiming that I-526 was not the most important route for evacuation from the islands. And although there may be some alleviation of traffic congestion, the intersection of I-526 with I-26 was still a choke point with only two lanes. Others noted that only a few minutes would be taken off commuting times if the extension were completed. Was this time savings worth spending $490 million?

Council member Johnson attempted to draw on the wisdom of King Solomon when she suggested compromise. We all know the story: the King suggested the baby be cut in two and divided between the two women who claimed to be the mother. As a result, the true mother gave up her claim and in turn received the child. This analogy probably failed to move anybody. A compromise suggests a meeting of protagonists somewhere between the two sides of an issue. Is such a compromise possible over I-526? We doubt it, even if the SIB relented and allowed the County to spend monies on other roads. A lot of people want the extension completed all the way to James Island, regardless. And some don’t want any part of it – regardless.

County attorney Dawson is now in the spotlight, tasked with finding a compromise with the SIB and DOT. And even if he is successful in Columbia, the compromise is not likely to play well with one or perhaps both sides of the issue back here in Charleston.

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