Riley pushing I-526, but others have concerns
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said he is ready for the city to take over and complete the long-stalled Mark Clark Expressway across Johns and James islands, and he is fiercely committed to tackling the obstacles in his way.
No 11th term
Don’t see Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s willingness to take on the Interstate 526 project as an indication that he’s changed his political retirement plans.
He reaffirmed Wednesday that he fully intends to step down after his 10th term ends in 2015.
“I’ve got three years and two months,” he said during a meeting with Post and Courier editors about his efforts to steward completion of I-526.
“I would think that in three years and two months this would be going, in one form or another,” he said.
Riley said he will ask City Council Tuesday to vote in favor of asking Charleston County to turn over the project to the city, and he thinks the resolution will be met with overwhelming support.
He is ready to forge ahead amid questions on whether:
The road has sufficient public support.
County Council will vote in favor of turning over the project.
Cost overruns would fall to city taxpayers.
The road ultimately would alleviate traffic problems.
Interstate 526 is important for the future quality of life for area residents, Riley said, and traffic problems will be a nightmare if it’s not built. He doesn’t want that to happen, to be in a position to say, “I told you so. If you say that, you have failed.”
It’s time to move forward, he said Wednesday. “If it’s not built now, it will never be built.”
Others are far less certain about the project. The chairman of the state’s Department of Transportation Commission said the city could be responsible for any cost overruns, which likely would be passed on to taxpayers.
And some County Council members said they can’t support passing on to Riley what they see as an unpopular project that wouldn’t alleviate traffic problems, and could harm lower-income and black communities on Johns Island.
County Councilman Dickie Schweers, an opponent of the project, said, “I lean toward not turning it over to the city. Riley would work diligently to build it, and I don’t think it should be built.”
Riley said he thinks the majority of people who would be affected by the road support it. He cited the results of a recent S.C. Department of Transportation survey of a random sample of 5,000 homes that found 72.2 percent of residents who completed the survey supported the DOT’s parkway plan for the completion of I-526.
He also said he regularly hears from constituents about how desperately the road is needed.
Others disagree with him on public support. The DOT conducted a dozen public meetings and presented several alternatives on possible designs for the road before choosing the parkway plan. The majority of people who participated in those meetings were opposed to that design, which has a 45 mph speed limit.
The Coastal Conservation League and grass-roots opposition group Nix 526 also are opposed to the road. Opponents think it will promote sprawl and that the state and region have more pressing road and traffic issues.
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor, who supports the road, said legal staffers now are looking into whether turning over the project to the city is a viable option. They will include that information in a presentation on council’s options for I-526 on Dec. 13, if not sooner, Pryor said.
He is not sure whether a majority of council members would vote in favor of turning it over to the city.
County Council last year voted against moving forward with the project, largely due to widespread opposition to the parkway plan. But the group reversed the decision when it learned that it could be on the hook for $11.6 million already spent on the project.
Council then voted to turn over sponsorship of the project to the DOT, but the group’s commission voted this year against taking it on.
The county is part of a three-party contract to build I-526. The county is the project’s sponsor, the DOT is the project manager and the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank has agreed to provide $558 million for the road.
County Councilman Henry Darby said he is concerned about the road dividing communities on Johns Island the way the construction of I-26 divided communities along its route.
He soon will talk to Riley, he said. “But if his plan involves the dividing of communities, I could not go along with his plan.”
Riley said he is certain that the project can be built with the $558 million from the Infrastructure Bank. And he’s not concerned about overruns being passed on to city taxpayers. The bank never has failed to fund the full cost of a project, he said.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a strong supporter of the project, said he agrees with Riley. He is certain it can be built with the money available. But even if it cannot be, the bank “has never failed to fully fund a project once it has signed off on it.”
Eddie Adams, chairman of the DOT commission and a member of the bank’s board, said he thinks the city would be responsible if the project ran over its budget. The county had asked the DOT to take over sponsorship of the project as well as be the project manager, he said.
And the commission voted against it largely because it didn’t want to be responsible for any additional costs.
Opponents of the road, who believe it won’t alleviate the area’s traffic problems, often cite the project’s Environmental Impact Statement. That document, prepared by the DOT, states that if the road were built, it would save only 36 seconds on an average trip in West Ashley or on James Island, and 4.6 minutes on Johns Island.
Hernan Pena, the city’s director of traffic and transportation, said the cumulative effect of those times would make a difference. He said it would save a total of 1,276 hours per day on James Island, 2,236 hours per day in West Ashley and 4,310 hours per day on Johns Island.
Riley said he plans to talk to County Council members in the coming days to push his plan. And he thinks that if more people listened to a comprehensive presentation on it, they might be convinced of the need for the road and the benefits it would bring.
“I think this road is not known and understood in the community,” he said.