Charleston City Council votes to take on I-526 extension
The possible completion of Interstate 526 got some fuel in its tank Tuesday, but it's doubtful that it's enough to carry the controversial project across the finish line.
Charleston County Council will hear a presentation on options for the future of I-526 at a Finance Committee meeting Dec. 13. It could at that meeting vote on whether to turn over the project to the city.
County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor also said that the group could discuss the matter sooner if all of the necessary information is available.
Charleston City Council voted 11-2 in favor of asking Charleston County Council to turn over the project to the city. Councilman Blake Hallman and Dudley Gregorie were opposed.
Council voted in front of a standing-room-only crowd of residents who came out to learn more about the project and to speak publicly. More than 40 county residents addressed City Council during the comment session.
If County Council, the project's current sponsor, votes next month to turn it over the city, the city would build the long-stalled highway across Johns and James islands.
City Councilman Marvin Wagner, who represents portions of West Ashley and Johns Island, voted in favor of the city taking it on. He said he thinks the majority of his constituents support the road, so he had to vote in favor of it. “I didn't have a choice,” he said.
Hallman, who also represents a portion of West Ashley, said he voted against the extension because, “I can't vote for a transportation project that would save so little time for so much money.”
Even though the majority of City Council members want to take over the project, it doesn't appear that a majority of County Council members will vote to turn it over.
County Councilwoman Colleen Condon said she doesn't think a majority of the nine County Council members would vote in favor of turning over the $558 million extension of I-526.
“I can't imagine there are five (County) Council members who are willing to abdicate the responsibility” to make a decision, Condon said. If council members are opposed to the project, they shouldn't turn it over to the city, because the city would build it, she said.
If council members support the road, Condon said, why would they give up control of the project?
County Council previously voted against the state Department of Transportation's parkway plan for the project. It reversed that decision when it learned that it could be on the hook for $11.6 million already spent on it. The group then asked the DOT to take over as sponsor of the project, but that agency also voted against taking it on.
This month, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a strong supporter of the project, proposed having the city take over.
Riley said the road must be built as a parkway, with a 45 mph speed limit. Some residents have said they prefer a traditional interstate, he said, but the project can't be drastically modified at this point.
Now there is a three-party contract for the project. Charleston County is the sponsor, the DOT is the project manager and the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank is paying for it. Under Riley's proposal, the city would replace the county as project sponsor.
Project supporters and opponents packed City Council chambers Tuesday to comment. More than 40 people passionately spoke either about the need to preserve the local environment, especially on Johns Island, or the need to alleviate traffic congestion.
Johns Island resident Jan Temple, who supports the road, said it's desperately needed to serve the rapidly growing and developing island. “Visionary people address change,” she said.
James Island resident Lisa Noonan said she didn't think it was needed. She was concerned that the city was considering taking on a project that previously had been voted down by two other groups. “If you don't like the vote, you can't just revote,” she said.
County votes lacking
Only two County Council members, Chairman Teddie Pryor and Vice Chairman Elliott Summey, have said they support the project and also could support turning it over to the city.
Condon and Councilmen Dickie Schweers and Joe Qualey have consistently been opposed to the project.
Vic Rawl supports completion of an interstate, but not the proposed parkway plan for I-526. Herb Sass also has concerns about a parkway, and he said he thinks County Council should make a firm decision on the project and not “kick the can down the road” by turning it over to City Council.
Henry Darby has said he wouldn't vote for a project that would divide, and likely harm, black communities on Johns Island, which he thinks the current plan for I-526 would do.
And Anna Johnson has said she is undecided.
Condon said she also was bothered when she learned that county staffers were working on modifications to the parkway plan without getting that work approved by the majority of County Council.
She thinks that in effect means county staffers were doing work for the city of Charleston. That's work the city should be doing, not receiving free from the county, she said.
And she thinks county staffers could be working under the direction a few council members but not the majority.
“They deliberately have been withholding information from the majority of council,” she said of staffers. And they are working on the parkway plan, which the majority of County Council voted against, she said.
County Administrator Kurt Taylor, in a prepared statement, said, “The chairman of council tasked staff to give council an update on the County's options for moving forward with the project, or the effect on our budget if we decide not to move forward and the (Infrastructure Bank) seeks reimbursement for past expenditures. When one council member raised concerns about what we were tasked to do, I invited that council member to give us any suggestions for additional information that councilmember would like us to address. We will do so for any councilmember.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Earlier versions of this story did not include the statement from County Administrator Kurt Taylor.
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.