The city of Charleston apparently won’t be taking over the controversial I-526 project today, as requested. But will County Council proceed with 526 on its own, as urged by its chairman, Teddie Pryor? That’s the $558 million question.
County Council has been asked by the city of Charleston to turn over the project so that it can be extended from its terminus west of the Ashley to the James Island connector, and thus to the peninsula city.
It’s hard to understand why County Council would relinquish a project it has previously rejected so that it could be built. It’s equally hard to understand why council would reverse itself to back a project that has created so much turmoil in the community.
But council member Colleen Condon, an opponent of the 526 proposal, says it could happen.
She told our reporter: “I fear there’s a majority of council members that will vote for it.”
Council last rejected the project in April 2011, and only decided subsequently to keep it on life support because the State Infrastructure Bank threatened to force the county to repay $11.6 million already spent on right of way and planning. The SIB is the funding agency for the project.
And the design is still the same, except for the possible addition of a flyover at its intersection with Folly Road.
The plan was roundly rejected in five public hearings in 2010 by residents who complained that the expressway would result in unwarranted development on Johns and James islands. The road as now planned has six interchanges, rather than two as initially proposed. It changes from a 65 mph elevated freeway to an at-grade road with a speed limit of 45 mph.
There continues to be strong opposition from many on Johns and James islands who fear ensuing development as a result of the project. Two Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor Commission members who live on Johns Island cite the potential damage to Sea Island culture in a column by Ronald Daise on today’s Commentary page. Those objections echo the concerns stated by County Councilman Henry Darby in a Nov. 7 letter to the editor.
Indeed, the road as planned appears designed to encourage new development.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley has insisted that “a silent majority” supports the road, and a DOT consultant quickly produced a survey that demonstrated public backing this year.
Meanwhile, the local Chamber of Commerce has designated the extension as one of its top priorities. The project is listed, however, as only the 15th priority on a regional road list by the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments. And the highway is not listed as a state priority, despite being one of the most costly pending projects in the state.
The I-526 extension also is strongly supported by House Speaker Bobby Harrrell and Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, both of Charleston. Together they made four appointments to the State Infrastructure Bank — a majority of the seven-member board.
But the membership of the SIB is expected to change in January. Mr. McConnell’s appointments will go to the next Senate president pro tempore — the job Mr. McConnell held before he became lieutenant governor.
With that change, SIB support for I-526 could quickly shift. And that could open the door for the SIB to reconsider a less costly bundle of road improvements for the Johns Island area — projects previously sought by County Council as an alternative to 526. Those improvements include widening Main Road and a new intersection at Main Road and U.S. 17.
Mr. Pryor hopes council will move forward on I-526 today.
Council would be better advised to repackage its alternative road improvement plan for the SIB to reconsider when the board membership changes.
The SIB has the authority to revise its position. County Council should give it the opportunity to do so next year.