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County Council, December 4

Staff presents options for I-526
No easy solution for Council!
Warwick Jones

If Council members were looking for staff to find an easy solution to the I-526 issue, they must have been disappointed. Chairman Pryor tasked staff over a month ago to study the issue and present Council with the options. They did so last night. Following the presentation, it seemed that nothing much has changed and in broad terms only two options exist– the County moves ahead to complete the project or pays back the $11.6 million it owes to the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) and which has already been spent on the project.

Predictably, the meeting last night brought out a lot of citizens. The main chamber was packed and folk spilled into the hallway. Attendance was helped by the planned presentations of the Nix 526 group and Mayor Riley. We’d guess that about 60-70% of attendees were opposed to the project. House Speaker Bobby Harrell was also scheduled to speak but was detained in Columbia. He sent a letter in support of the project.

In our view, there was little offered by the Nix 26 and City speakers that had not been said before. The presentations were good and flowed well. But the effectiveness of the City presentation was blunted by Council member Condon’s criticism. She took strong issue over the benefit claimed by the City with the completion of I-526. The City presentation included two maps – the first with a mass of red dots indicating failing roads in 2035 with no completion, the second where all the red dots turned green with the completion, suggesting no failing roads. Council member Condon pointed out that from her information, many of the roads with green dots would still be congested even with the completion of I-526. Transportation Director Pena indicated that the green dots represented improved conditions, at least that is what we think he said.

The speaker for Nix 526 also questioned the veracity of the City’s maps showing congestion before and after the completion of I-526. She noted that congestion would barely be relieved on many roads. Her view and that of Council member Condon were supported by the representative of the SC Department of Transportation (SCDOT). He noted that the Department considered the completion of I-526 a regional plan, to benefit Johns and James Island, and West Ashley. Yes, he said, completion of I-526 would ease traffic flows over many roads, particularly Highway 17. But some major roads would continue to be congested, even I-526 itself in some sections.

The SCDOT speaker took issue with Nix 526 speaker who trivialized the 36 second savings on the average traveling time. It seems the average was only for those folk on James and Johns Island, and West Ashley. It did not attempt to account for travelers outside these areas. He also noted that the completion of I-526 would cut a total of 98,797 miles each day for those travelers who would use the new section of the highway over their previous routes. He also said that the completion would cut 6,946 hours from travel times.

We’d take his estimates a little further. Assuming that vehicles get 20 miles to the gallon and gasoline costs $4 a gallon, the value of the fuel savings would be about $20,000 a day or $7.3 million a year - not a great amount compared to the $557 million cost of the I-526 completion. But to be fair, the savings on vehicle wear and tear could be as much as the fuel cost, and if so would take the total to say $15 million. And the value of the reduction in travel times has to be positive but we have no idea of the value. But even so, the whole savings from the completion of I-526 does not seem overwhelming in relation to the estimated cost.

Council is scheduled to discuss the I-526 issue at its next meeting on December 13 and it is possible that a vote will again be taken. Taking a cue from the staff presentation, the County has the option of not building and repaying the money to the SIB, or proceeding in some way with the completion. The City of Charleston has offered to take on the completion if the County were to assign the project to it. We doubt that the County would do this but we suppose some joint effort may be possible.

From the tone and substance of comments, the staff was not optimistic that the $11.6 million owed to the SIB would be forgiven. This view was shared by some Council members, particularly Council member Summey who publicly recalled the meeting he and other Council members had with the SIB where they were assured that the County was liable and legally obliged to repay the money. Staff went on to suggest from where the County could obtain the money but metaphorically they were holding their noses as they spoke. They said the County could draw on half-cent sales tax funds but this would mean cancelling some projects, particularly as sales tax receipts were falling behind earlier estimates. The County could also draw on fund balances but this would not sit well with rating agencies. This could be costly if the bond rating were lowered, particularly as the County is considering some refinancing in the New Year.

Staff did not consider specific upgrades to roads and intersections on Johns and James Island, and West Ashley an option. These projects were suggested in 2011 as an alternative to the I-526 completion and the Nix 526 group suggested that the County again consider them. The cost of the improvements was estimated in 2011 at $259 million. Originally, some Council members hoped that the SIB would agree to fund these improvements in exchange for giving up the promised funding for I-526. The County was told that the funding was not transferable to other projects. Staff obviously believed what the County was told.

The speaker for Nix 526 suggested that common sense would prevail in Columbia once the new SIB board was chosen. It could not accept the idea that if the I-526 completion were abandoned, the SIB would reject a potential $200-$300 savings and which could be spent on other projects.

Staff told Council that if a decision were made to proceed with the I-526 completion, it could be 4 to 5 years before construction started. There were some changes to the original plan and they had to be approved by the SIB and others. There were also permitting obligations. We also suspect that some legal action is likely by opponents of the project. How much of a delay this might cause is conjectural.

The presentations made before Council last night can be seen on the County’s web site. Viewers can press here to get to the site.

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