Charleston County Council to decide Interstate 526 project’s future amid perplexing questions
The battle over whether to complete the Mark Clark Expressway is getting more fierce. Charleston County Council tonight will hear presentations for and against the project, including one from House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who recently asked to be placed in the lineup.
Players in the decision on whether to complete I-526 who will be at tonight’s meeting:
Charleston County Council is the project’s current sponsor and the group that will decide whether to build the road, not build it, or turn over the project to the city of Charleston.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is poised to have the city take over the completion of the project as a parkway with a 45 mph speed limit. City Council voted in favor of a resolution asking County Council to turn over the project.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell is a strong project supporter who has been pushing hard in recent months to ensure the road is completed. He will address County Council tonight to warn members that if they don’t move forward with the road now, they might never again get the money to build it.
Robin Welch is one of the founders of the opposition group Nix 526, which has nearly 6,000 members on Facebook. The group has grown and become more vocal in recent months as a final decision on whether to complete I-526 appears to be close.
Council likely will decide next week whether to move forward with the long-stalled project, not build it or turn it over to the city of Charleston. But some perplexing questions remain:
If you go
What: Presentations to Charleston County Council on the completion of Interstate 526
When: 5 p.m. today
Where: Second floor, Lonnie Hamilton III Public Services Building, 4045 Bridge View Drive, North Charleston
Public comment: This is a special Finance Committee meeting at which the public cannot comment. But people can comment on I-526 during the 6:30 p.m. public comment session before County Council’s 7 p.m. meeting.
Q: Could the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank pay for a bundle of smaller projects instead of completing Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands?
A: It’s possible it could, but it won’t.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse last week said the bank could decide to pay for a $260 million bundle of smaller road projects instead of completing I-526 across Johns and James islands, a controversial project that would cost $558 million. But Limehouse said Monday that’s not going to happen. The bank board has wide discretion, he said, “but there’s a big difference between could and would.”
Limehouse said he supports the completion of I-526, even though he would prefer it to be completed as a traditional interstate instead of the current parkway plan for the road, which includes a 45 mph speed limit.
Limehouse also said there soon will be changes in the members of the Infrastructure Bank board that likely could make its decisions less favorable to the Lowcountry.
Q: Why is Harrell making a presentation?
A: Limehouse’s comments, which were published in Thursday’s Post and Courier, prompted Harrell to ask to be added to today’s lineup, said Council Chairman Teddie Pryor. Harrell is a strong supporter of completing I-526. And he has championed it in recent months, including pushing the Infrastructure Bank board to commit another $138 million of future bonding capacity to the project.
Pryor said Harrell wants to drive home to council members that they soon must make a very serious decision. If they turn down the money to complete I-526, it could be gone for good.
Q: What do County Council members who oppose the project have to say?
A: Councilwoman Colleen Condon, who has consistently been opposed to the project, said, “The question isn’t whether there’s the political ability to transfer funds (to a batch of smaller projects), but whether there’s the political will to transfer funds.”
She said council in May 2011 presented an amendment to the Infrastructure Bank requesting that instead of completing I-526, it fund other projects, including interchange improvements at I-526 and the Glenn McConnell Parkway; an overpass at U.S. Highway 17 and Main Road, which is an entry onto Johns Island; and widening of Main Road from Bees Ferry Road to Maybank Highway. But the bank would not consider the request, she said.
Q: How does the Infrastructure Bank decide which projects to fund, and why didn’t it consider the county’s amended proposal?
A: Donald Leonard, chairman of the seven-member Infrastructure Bank board, said the board did not consider that the county’s proposal for a batch of smaller projects was an amendment to its original application for funding I-526. The board considered the county’s plan a new project that would require a new application. And the board wasn’t accepting new project applications at that time because it had no money to pay for them.
The Infrastructure Bank board has a system for evaluating project applications, Leonard said. And newer projects can be moved ahead of those that previously had been approved. But, he said, “if a project is moved ahead of another project, it’s based on merit according to our guidelines.”
“The bank previously has funded bundled projects,” Leonard said, as long as they cost $100 million or more. And it previously has accepted amendments to existing projects. “But new projects need a new application.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.