The long-stalled completion of Interstate 526 shifted back into gear Thursday, when Charleston County Council voted to build it.
What they said
Supporters“I’m looking at the big picture. The community needs this.”Clare Richter, resident of Sylvan Shores, West Ashley“It’s a very positive solution to the road situation. It will provide safer access to and from the islands for our employees, guests and all of our residents.”Lauren Patch, Kiawah town councilman, elected Dec. 4“You restored my faith in government today.”Bart King, resident of West Ashley“By completing I-526, local roads on Johns and James islands can remain just that, local roads.”Ron Jones, chairman of the Charleston Metro Chamber of CommerceOpponents“There are better build options.”Marilyn Samuel, resident of Delaney Drive, James Island“I’m going to look out my bedroom window and see the traffic.”Frances Reynolds, resident of the Savannah condominiums in West Ashley“I’m hoping we use some common sense and come up with a plan that will resolve our traffic issue without spending ridiculous sums of money we don’t have.”Glenda Miller, resident of Seabrook Island“If I-526 is built, I probably could make money on my property. But no amount of money will fix what I-526 will destroy.”Sarah Allred, resident of Johns Island
Council members voted 5-4 in favor of completing the road across Johns and James islands, a project that has been on the books since the 1970s. Councilman Elliott Summey presented a resolution to move forward with the parkway plan for the project, also known as Alternative G. That plan included an overpass at Folly Road on James Island, an overpass at East Shore Lane in West Ashley and a consistent speed limit of 45 mph. Councilwoman Anna Johnson submitted amendments to the plan, and council approved those. They included safety improvements in some James Island neighborhoods; mitigating noise, light and emissions; improvements to some intersections on James Island; and compensation for a drop in property value for some residents who live within 1,000 feet of the road.
How they voted
In favor of building the road:Teddie Pryor, Elliott Summey, Vic Rawl, Herb Sass and Anna JohnsonOpposed to building the road:Colleen Condon, Joe Qualey, Dickie Schweers and Henry Darby
Even though the $558 million project was approved, it will be years before construction begins. It faces a lengthy federal approval process, and likely challenges to environmental permits.
A standing-room-only crowd of county residents both for and against the project packed council chambers for the I-526 vote. County staffers had to direct many residents to overflow rooms in other parts of the building. Sixty residents signed up to address council during the public comment session.
West Ashley resident Emily Ayers Cravedi said the current plan for the road takes it through her home at the Savannah condominiums. “I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the heart,” she said.
But Bart King, another West Ashley resident, strongly supports the project. “You restored my faith in government today,” he told council members.
Before the meeting, three members had been identified as supporting the road, three opposed to it and three undecided.
The undecided members were Herb Sass, Johnson and Henry Darby. Darby voted against building the road. But Sass and Johnson voted in favor of it, tipping the scale in favor of project supporters.
Sass said he agonized over the decision. But some modifications to the project plan helped make up his mind to vote in favor of it. “I understand now the regional solution of I-526,” he said.
Several James Island residents who live in Johnson’s district chastised her for her vote. They said she campaigned for her seat as an opponent to the completion of I-526, and they felt betrayed.
Johnson said she had not gone back on her word, because she said while campaigning that she was opposed to Alternative G. “526 plan G I don’t like, and I still don’t like the plan,” she said. “But I can accept it with changes.”
Other council members who voted in favor of building I-526 also said the plan had serious flaws.
“It’s not the best,” Councilman Vic Rawl said. “But it’s the best we can get. This is the best of the worst, It certainly is not a panacea.”
Councilman Joe Qualey, who voted against the project, said interstate loop plans don’t improve traffic congestion. He has lived in larger cities with interstates circling them. “Everybody knows beltways don’t create traffic relief,” he said. “They create sprawl and development.”
Ron Jones, chairman of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, also addressed council during the public comment session. He called council’s decision to build the road “a boon for the community.” The chamber has been behind the project since the beginning, he said.
Jake Libaire, a project manager for the Coastal Conservation League, a group strongly opposed to the project, said, “Despite the disappointing vote, nobody’s bringing out the bulldozers anytime soon.
There are many steps between where the county is now and the development of a final Environmental Impact Statement and the issuing of environmental permits,” he said. “The process is far from over.
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.