In a large meeting room packed with people wearing anti-I-526 stickers, Charleston County Council unanimously voted Thursday to reject the controversial plan to complete the highway known as the Mark Clark Expressway.
After the 8-0 vote to dump the S.C. Department of Transportation's chosen plan for the highway, a majority on the council went a step further. They voted to negotiate a "no build" decision with the state -- meaning no plan for the highway would move forward -- unless the state considers "enhancements to existing transportation infrastructure to accomplish the project goals."
That means the county wants to use the state funding earmarked for I-526 for other transportation work.
SCDOT has repeatedly taken the position that the project goals can be accomplished only by extending I-526 from West Ashley to Johns and James islands, linking the existing highway to the James Island connector.
The agency also has rejected the idea of considering new alternatives to the Mark Clark plan selected by the state, the unpopular "alternative G" that the council rejected.
That $489 million plan would complete the Mark Clark as a moderate-speed, ground-level parkway with a bike path, connecting the islands and West Ashley with new bridges.
Together, the council's actions would appear to have killed any plan for the Mark Clark. But some council members said that's not the case, and county Attorney Joe Dawson said the county's contract with the state does not allow it to unilaterally quit the project.
"I think the trouble is just beginning," said Council Chairman Teddie Pryor.
Pryor, Vice Chairman Elliott Summey and Councilman Vic Rawl voted against the "no build" motion and warned that the action could trigger a contract default, potentially allowing the state to seize county funding as repayment for the nearly $12 million already spent on the project.
Summey said the county agreed to a "horrible contract" with the SCDOT and State Infrastructure Bank in 2007, when he was not yet on the council, which put the county at financial risk.
He said the contract could theoretically allow the state to build the nearly half-billion-dollar highway without the county's consent, and charge the county for any costs that exceed the $420 million pledged by the state.
Summey and Pryor had advocated transferring the road project to the state, but that idea was voted down, with opponents saying that giving control to the state might result in SCDOT building a highway county residents don't want.
Councilman Dickie Schweers suggested that Summey was exaggerating the risks by saying 150 county employees could lose their jobs and taxes could go up if the state demands the $12 million.
Schweers and Councilwoman Colleen Condon worked together on the "no build" motion the council approved. County Council meets again Tuesday for final votes on Thursday's actions.
Questions and Answers
Q: Does this mean the Mark Clark won't be completed?
There's some uncertainty. The council voted down the state's plan, but the county's lawyer says they don't have the authority to do that.
Q: Will the county face dire financial consequences?
Summey, Pryor and Rawl, who is a former judge, believe that's possible. State officials haven't publicly stated their position.
Q: Didn't the state's transportation secretary say previously that the county had the option of continuing with the project or 'pulling the plug'?
Yes, he did.
Q: What happens next?
County Council meets Tuesday evening for final votes on Thursday's motions, perhaps with less ambiguity.