HICKS COLUMN: 2 sides of I-526 debate are miles apart
Henry Darby wishes we could all just get along.
The Charleston County councilman and his colleagues listened to arguments from folks for and against finishing Interstate 526 at a council committee meeting Tuesday night.
What they heard were two competing views of reality.
Nix 526 leader Robin Welch spoke with passion about preserving Johns Island culture. City officials spoke with authority about how Savannah Highway would become a parking lot unless Interstate 526 is extended to James Island by cutting across Johns Island.
When Charleston Mayor Joe Riley finished his remarks, Darby made a particularly audacious suggestion:
“Have you met with the Coastal Conservation League and Nix 526 to see if all the entities can sit down and discuss the matter? Is that possible?”
The answer, in a word, is no.
The anti-526 crowd says the $558 million road would save motorists only 36 seconds a day; the city says it would save 5,795 cumulative hours of driving each day.
When two sides see things that differently, they aren't compromising.
Taking a stand?
County Council has a decision to make.
Next week, these nine folks will vote on whether to turn the controversial road project over to the city of Charleston.
This is not going to be an easy vote, as Darby knows.
Giving 526 to Riley is basically a vote for the road. Because there's no doubt — he'll get it built. So council isn't really passing the buck; it's taking a stand.
Which means that at least five of them will have to pick a side.
For her part, Welch says her group is willing to compromise. Their alternative is improvements to a half-dozen other roads in the county, projects she says would do more to alleviate gridlock than 526.
But the city noted there's no money for those much-needed road improvements, although the Transportation Sales Tax will fund some, including the intersection of S.C. Highway 61 and Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. The State Infrastructure Bank won't allow money earmarked for 526 to be used for anything else.
The county staff backed that claim up — they've already asked.
So much for that compromise.
In a tight spot
Tuesday night the Nix 526 people were out in force.
They took up two-thirds of the council chamber, and had decorated the parking lot with anti-526 banners. One guy wore a shirt that says “Riley lies.”
This is going to get worse before it gets better.
If County Council doesn't give the city permission to build the road, they will be subjected to a political apocalypse from state lawmakers and face an unappetizing choice: They either have to pay the state $11 million or risk losing their bond rating, which county officials say could cost taxpayers $80 million in additional interest payments on existing bonds.
And if council gives Riley the road, there will be a long court battle. That is such a certainty that Riley even included “defense of lawsuits” in his presentation.
Someone noted Tuesday that this may be the toughest vote County Council will ever make.
And that's why some council members would like to avoid it. But that's not happening.
When Darby asked Riley about the chance of a compromise, the mayor was direct:
“It's either complete 526 or not.”
Riley's right. It's either built, or it's not. And County Council has to take a stand.
Darby noted with a lack of enthusiasm that County Council is in a tight spot, and they aren't going to be able to make everyone happy.
It's probably the only thing anyone said Tuesday night that's not in dispute.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org or read his blog at blog.postandcourier.com/brians-blog.