In April of 2011, Charleston County Council voted against completing I-526. That followed five public hearings in 2010, during which a majority of attendees spoke in opposition to the costly project.
On Wednesday, the S.C. Department of Transportation Commission voted unanimously in Columbia not to take over the project from Charleston County.
Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor’s response: “This project is not dead.”
Maybe not. But it’s certainly not showing much sign of life after Wednesday’s crucial setback. And considering the vast expense required to complete the project, who can revive it — and how?
Chairman Pryor, key legislators, most local mayors and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce remain firm in their conviction that I-526 must be completed from Folly Road to Highway 17 South to handle increased traffic and provide an additional hurricane evacuation route from Johns, James, Wadmalaw, Kiawah and Seabrook islands.
Yet there are also many opponents of the project. Kiawah Island Town Councilman Greg Vanderwerker, along with others, has made a common-sense suggestion: Improve existing roads and intersections on Johns Island instead.
While such improvements were not on the commission’s agenda, members did say absolutely “no” to taking over the controversial $558 million I-526 completion project from Charleston County.
Several members reportedly voted “no” because the project wasn’t on the priority list.
That’s encouraging. Unfortunately, the DOT has for too long focused on monumental projects that aren’t on its priority list, even while there is not enough money to pay DOT contractors.
Members would show further wisdom if they instruct the DOT to do more overdue maintenance and repair to existing infrastructure. Johns Island would be a good place to start.
In the case of I-526, some DOT Commission members chastised Charleston County Council for sending the project their way like a hot potato. County Council would like to shed the responsibility — and the $11.6 million debt to the State Infrastructure Bank that comes with it. That is how much SIB money has already been spent on the I-526 project. If it is not built, the county has been told it must repay the money.
The SIB has committed to funding the entire estimated cost. At present, there is no contingency plan in the event of cost overruns and no mandate to build it.
Also at present, there is no body willing to take on the eight-mile, four-lane highway, including five miles of bridges (two 80-foot-tall spans over the Stono River).
Yes, opponents believe a strong majority of residents want the road to be completed. The DOT recently conducted a survey, mostly by mail, of several zip codes that would be affected most by a connector, and the results strongly supported the concept.
But opponents say the survey was too vague: Which road design were people asked to approve or disapprove?
Opponents also are skeptical of what they consider tactics designed to scare people about leaving the islands in the event of a hurricane.
And they object to environmental damage that could occur as a result of the project, as well as likely cultural and density change that the project would bring to mostly rural Johns Island.
This is almost assuredly not the last chapter of the I-526 saga that has been going on for decades. Many people, including some powerful ones, want to keep it alive.
After Wednesday’s vote, though, they will have to find a new route to completing the project. That means convincing more people, in and out of public office, to support it.
And that’s something the project’s proponents haven’t been able to do despite years of trying.