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County Council, December 13

County to go ahead with the I-526 completion
But what of the final cost and the County’s liability?
Warwick Jones

Council last night voted to move ahead with the completion of I-526. Understandably, the folk that opposed the completion were disappointed. But even for those that supported the project, there were reasons for concern. Perhaps the biggest is the final cost. Modifications made last night to the plan seem certain to boost the cost well above the present $558 million estimate and the $555 million.funding promised by the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) And the question remains from where will the extra funds come?

At the Finance Committee meeting, Council member Summey introduced a lengthy resolution which brought the I-526 completion back to life. It can be seen by pressing Download file. The document does not say that the County is actually committed to the project but the inference is more than strong that it plans to. It also said that Council endorses the Alternative G conceptual route but with the following modifications:

  1. A grade –separated interchange at Folly Road, including an overpass at Up on the Hill Road on James Island

  2. An overpass at East Shore Lane, West Ashley

  3. A speed limit of 45MPH on the mainline

  4. “Other modifications that may be the result of public comments received during the Environmental Impact Statement process”

Before the debate got underway, Council member Johnson proposed some amendments. These too were lengthy and dealt primarily with ameliorating any adverse impact of the completion on properties along the course of the new highway. To our surprise, they were accepted immediately by Council member Summey as an amendment of his resolution. There was no questioning by the Council member before he accepted the amendments, suggesting that he and probably others on Council anticipated Council member Johnson’s action and were aware of the conditions that she wanted attached to the resolution. Considering the closeness of the final vote, acceptance of Council member Johnson’s amendments probably was necessary to secure approval of the project. To see Council member Johnson's amendments, press Download file.

The absence of questioning by Council member Summey was not the only thing that surprised us about the amendments. The other was some of the amendments – “Staff was to report on the potential diminution in value to any residence within 1000 feet of the proposed alignment. Staff was to make good faith efforts to evaluate and consider claims by residents for compensation even if there is no physical taking of their property”. We presume that this commits the County to making good those claims.

Nobody supplied an estimate as to the likely magnitude of these claims. Staff acknowledged that no provision for such claims had been made in the cost estimate of the highway completion, and indeed, staff did not know how many properties might be eligible for compensation. However, the presentation by the Nix526 group, quoting the Post and Courier, indicated there were 780 properties within 500 feet of the alignment. So the number within 1000 feet could be substantial. And as to the level of compensation, we have no idea except that it too could be substantial. The estimates of any diminution will be a challenge for staff, and very likely subject to many legal challenges.

There was a lengthy discussion and sometimes heated debate on Council about the resolution and we will make no attempt to describe it all. Much has already been said and was again repeated last night.

Council member Schweers asked why a resolution and not an ordinance? He was told that legally it did not make a difference but a resolution was easier. He also noted that he had no advance copy of the resolution or the proposed amendments. Yet he was expected to vote on such an important issue without a thorough consideration, noting that the Council meeting that confirmed the Finance Committee vote occurred immediately after the Finance Committee meeting.

Council members Johnson and Sass gave explanations as to why they now would vote for the I-526 completion. Both had opposed it previously. Council member Johnson said that she always had sought some compromise and she thought the amendments to the resolution that she proposed provided that compromise. She also rebuked the critics that said she had let down the residents of her district. She said she had a duty to the residents but also to all of the citizens of the County. Council member Sass explained that the issue of I -526 came up at the time he joined Council. He had insufficient time to fully study the issue but now he was in fuller position of the facts, he supported it.

The final vote was 5 for (Pryor, Summey, Rawl, Sass, Johnson) and 4 against (Schweers, Condon, Darby, Qualey).

The citizens’ comments period that preceded the Council meeting drew a long list of speakers. The speakers split equally to those congratulating the Finance Committee on passing the resolution, and those critical. Mayor Riley was the first to offer his congratulations, taking again the opportunity of citing the need and importance of the I-526 completion. As suggested by one Council member, Mayor Riley was probably responsible for forcing Council to reconsider the I-526 project. He moved to have the City of Charleston take over the project after the SC Department of Transportation washed its hands of it. Representative Stravrinakis, on Council when the SIB grant was considered, also offered his congratulations. The comments from those who opposed the completion were sometimes bitter and emotional. Many faced the loss of the homes so the emotion and bitterness were easy to understand. Some were highly critical of Council member Johnson, particularly as they had worked in her election campaign. Others suggested that the fight was not over as the project still had many hurdles.

Some of the opponents suggested that legal action was likely, especially in the permitting process. How successful this action will be, we cannot tell but almost certainly it will occur. The Coastal Conservation League has been a strong opponent of the I-526 completion and legal action has been a frequently used tool for CCL to get its way on many issues. Legal action has not always worked but the fact that Mayor Riley publicly anticipates it suggests a strong likelihood.that it will be used.