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City Council, November13

Mayor Riley to Dana Beach – Drop dead!
I-526 must be completed and we’ll fight any court challenge
Marc Knapp

Unmoved by the some 30 or so citizens who spoke against the completion of I-526 at last night’s Council meeting, Mayor Riley resolutely held his ground. The project must be completed, he said. The need is obvious, the majority of citizens are calling for completion, and the funds are in place. But his call went further than any before. He blamed the Coastal Conservation League (CCL) and its leader, Dana Beach for orchestrating the opposition to the project. Similar to the cruise ship issue, the opposition was based on misleading information. The Mayor said that if the City were to take over the I-526 project, he expected CCL would continue to oppose it and would attempt to bring legal action. He was prepared for this and would fight it.

Before Council last night was a resolution requesting Charleston County Council to assign to the City certain rights and responsibilities relating to the completion of the I-526 project. The resolution also sought the written consent of the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) to the assignment. The Bank has agreed to a $555 million grant for the project.

The majority of Council members spoke strongly in support of the resolution and voted accordingly. The only members who voted against the resolution were Hallman and Gregorie. Council member Hallman thought that the funds would be better spent on road maintenance. Uncharacteristically, Council member Gregorie was silent, making no comment.

Director of Transportation, Hernan Pena gave a presentation on the project to Council. He traced the route of the road over West Ashley, Johns and James Island, noting proposed bridges, exits and entrances. Perhaps the most compelling argument for the road was the map showing the location of likely failing roads in 20 years hence if I-526 were not completed. We could not count the red dots but there must have been more than 30. All of them turned green when the effect of completing I-526 was taken into account.

Mr. Pena also noted that a section of the highway would have a 45 mph speed limit as opposed to 55 mph. It seemed that the City would have been happy with a 55 mph limit but the engineering and other requirements attached to such a limit would have boosted the price by $100 million. The estimated savings in travel times was not worth the extra expense.

The Mayor cautioned that Highways 17 and 7 would face gridlock in 20 years or so if I-526 were not completed. Infrastructure growth had not kept pace with development over recent years. The completion was not only necessary for access to Johns and James Islands but to relieve the pressure in West Ashley from continued growth. He also noted that the grant from the SIB was not transferable. If the funds were not spent on I-526, they most likely go to another project in the State. As well, directing funds to road maintenance was not an option for the SIB. It was obliged to invest only in infrastructure projects. He added that fears of the effect of a cost overrun were exaggerated. The SIB had never let a municipality bear the burden of a cost overrun. He expected the SIB would come to the aid of the City if such an event occurred.

The Mayor expressed sympathy for those that owned property in the way of the proposed highway. But he noted that this was always the common problem relating to the construction of new roads. But the acquisition of property was necessary for their construction. He also played down the suffering of those on Johns Island whose way of life may be threatened. He had not noted any folk seeking to rezone properties into conservation. Most were happy to see the benefit of rising property values. Council Member Riegel also noted that in his electorate, over 80% of African Americans supported the project. This flew in the face of conventional wisdom that African- Americans were likely to suffer more than any other groups from the completion of the highway.

Council members Moody, Riegel, Alexander, Wilson, Wagner, Waring and Lewis spoke in favor of the resolution. And there was one thing common to all their speeches – a large majority of the members of their districts wanted the project completed. Council member Wilson was surprised at the level of support. She canvassed all of the neighborhood societies in her district and estimated support was between 67% and 75%. Council member Riegel estimated support in his district at over 80%. Council member Seekings made the shortest and most succinct of the speeches. He said that by sending the resolution to the County, the City was providing the leadership that had been hitherto lacking over the project.

Of the 50 or so citizens who spoke last night, about 30 were opposed to the project. It seems to us that the majority of those opposed were owners of property in the path of the road, or close enough to be affected. One of the owners, Robin Finch has spoken many times before County Council noting the plight of landowners. They cannot sell or refinance their properties while the fate of the I-526 completion remains undecided. They have been in limbo for some 5 years and it is an injustice. Mr. Finch wanted a decision – either way. Another speaker noted that properties relatively close to the development would be affected because lending bodies are reluctant to finance such properties. State Representative Stavrinakis, County Council members Qualey and Sass attended the meeting though only Re Stavrinakis spoke - in favor of the project.

We won’t attempt to summarize the points raised by the speakers both for and against the project. Most have been made before in the many hearings on the project.

The issue now will go back to County Council. After the SC DOT refused to take over the project, Chairman Pryor tasked staff some weeks ago to prepare a list of options for Council in regard to future action on I-526. One of these options will be to turn the project over to the City. It is hard to see the County doing this. It may be expedient but it would make the County Council look weak and irresponsible. And besides, it would effectively be a decision to proceed with I-526. This would be counter to previous decisions to not build and to turn the project over to the SC DOT. Mayor Riley can be persuasive and has been meeting County Council members. How persuasive he has been will be seen when County Council meets in early December.

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