COLUMBIA — The completion of Interstate 526 rapidly is becoming the pariah of road projects, and the state Department of Transportation on Wednesday sent it home to Charleston County.
What could happen
Charleston County Council must decide whether to:Reverse a unanimous vote and build the parkway-style road for $558 million.Modify the plan in hopes of finding a more popular alternative.Hold firm in not building it, and possibly be required to pay back $11.6 million.Take legal action to fight having to pay back the money.
The seven-member DOT Commission at a specially called meeting voted unanimously against taking on the project. Charleston County Council also in January voted unanimously against completing the interstate loop around the city by building a parkway-style road across Johns and James islands.
But it asked the DOT to take over the $558 million project when it learned that it could be on the hook for $11.6 million already spent.
Commissioners responded with a resounding no.
“Charleston County Council didn’t have the insight or courage to make a decision,” said Commissioner John P. Edwards. “Charleston County should take the job.”
Opponents of the extension of I-526 were cautiously optimistic after the vote, but said the project likely is in a tailspin. Supporters were holding out hope that Charleston County Council would reconsider its earlier decision.
Commission Chairman Eddie Adams said members received huge numbers of calls and emails from citizens on both sides of the debate. And he’s pleased that the matter no longer is haunting the DOT. “We have 42,000 miles of road in South Carolina that we have to worry about, and more than 8,000 bridges we have to worry about. We’re going back to business to what’s best for South Carolina.”
County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor, who supports I-526, said council members, county staffers and representatives from the DOT will have to discuss what to do next. County Council committees meet today, but Pryor said the road will not be a topic of discussion.
The project, for now, remains under a previous contract, where the county is the sponsor, the DOT is the construction manager and the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank is paying for the road.
“We’re going to have to make a choice about whether to build the road or give back $558 million to be used elsewhere in the state and pay back $11.6 million,” Pryor said.
Supporters of the road have said it would alleviate traffic congestion and promote safety, while opponents have said it would promote sprawl, and that the state has other road priorities.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a strong supporter of the project, said I-526 has been surrounded by “a cacophony of sound and emotion.” He thinks County Council will reconsider after members have some time to catch their collective breath.
“Riley is delusional,” said Robin Welch, a James Island resident and an organizer of the grass-roots opposition group Nix 526. Her group, which has more than 3,000 members on Facebook, will continue to fight the project, she said.
But the win Wednesday felt good for people who took a lot time away from their families to fight I-526. “So many people told me, ‘You can’t fight City Hall,’??” she said. But her group appears to be doing just that.
Riley acknowledged that the project was at a critical juncture. “It’s now or never,” he said. “If it isn’t built now, it never will be.”
Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League, a strong opponent of the project, said the DOT vote was damning for I-526, at least for now. “They pulled the plug on the life support system,” he said. “I think this practically is the final blow, but I would never say it wouldn’t come up again.”