State Transportation Commission pulls I-526 discussion from meeting agenda
The debate over finishing Interstate 526 has divided people in the Charleston area for years.
Now it’s spreading across the state.
A long-awaited decision on whether the state Department of Transportation would take over the project from Charleston County and build the road could have been made this week, but it was pulled from the agenda of the state Transportation Commission’s Thursday meeting.
Commissioner Jim Rozier, from Moncks Corner, said he was told the discussion was pulled because I-526 is not an official DOT project, so should not be on its agenda. He admitted that the reasoning behind the move is confusing, because the commission is being asked to decide whether to take on the project.
Others say politics is afoot.
Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League, which is opposed to extending the road across Johns and James islands, said his group did an informal poll of commissioners and found that at least four of the seven of them indicated they would vote against the DOT taking on the project, because it is not a state priority.
Beach said he thinks project supporters, such House Speaker Bobby Harrell, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and others, influenced the decision to delay a possible vote on the project. “We want the issue voted on,” Beach said. “We want it to go to bed.”
Beach also said he thinks supporters will continue to work behind the scenes to push for the project. “They’re going underground,” he said. “They’re cowards.”
Harrell spokesman Greg Foster said the speaker has not spoken to anyone at the DOT since it released results of a survey on I-526 on Sept. 10. Those results showed that more than 70 percent of people who took the survey were in favor of completing the road.
Charleston County Council has asked the DOT to take over the controversial $558 million project, but the DOT hasn’t yet made a decision on whether it will do so.
Project supporters said the road is needed for safety and to alleviate traffic problems, while opponents said it will promote sprawl and development.
The Post and Courier called all seven commissioners to ask whether they were intending to vote in favor of the road or against it before the item was removed from the agenda:
Rozier said he would have voted in favor of I-526.
Clifton Parker said he is opposed to the DOT taking on the completion of I-526 because it is not even ranked on the department’s list of priority projects.
Craig Forrest and Harrison Rearden would not comment on how they would have voted.
R. Eddie Adams, John Edwards and W.B. Cook did not respond to calls for comment.
Rozier said he would have voted in favor because he thinks the department could do a better job than the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Government’s transportation committee.
Harrell has previously said that if the DOT voted against the project, the committee, known as the Charleston Area Transportation Study or CHATS, possibly could manage it.
Ron Mitchum, the Council of Governments’ executive director, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Parker, who is from Gaston, said he thinks supporters are working on a strategy to move the project forward. That concerns him because I-526 isn’t ranked on the DOT’s priority list, he said.
He thinks the state should focus on more important projects, such as improvements to Interstates 26 and 85. “Why are we even talking about this?” he asked.
He also said he’s been flooded with emails on the subject, especially with in-depth emails from opponents. “It’s eye-opening to see the gross opposition,” he said.
Rearden, from Columbia, said he intends to withhold is his opinion until I-526 is brought up in a public forum. But, he said, he thinks there is a lot of maneuvering behind the scenes on I-526. “To be very frank with you, it’s become a political exercise,” he said.
He hopes the matter comes to a close soon. “Some disposition needs to be made on this whole matter,” he said.
Rozier said he doesn’t think the matter is over for the DOT commission. “I feel sure at some point it’s going to come back.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.