I-526 threatens road vote

In 2012, then-Mayor Joe Riley pointed out a study of traffic issues relating to I-526 not being completed across James Island, Johns Island and West Ashley. He spoke again last week to County Council urging that members put 526 on the referendum. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com)

Early last week, Charleston County Council appeared to have settled its differences on a referendum asking voters to support a half-cent sales tax hike for road improvements, green space preservation and the local bus system. That accord was apparently reached by eliminating the extension of I-526 — the most costly and controversial program on the list.

But by Thursday, I-526 was back, with its advocates urging support for the project, and council members ultimately dissolving into disagreement and a shouting match. Finally County Council killed the referendum altogether.

Well, not quite.

Councilman Vic Rawl said that the matter could be revived next Tuesday under the parliamentary rule that allows a council member to bring up an issue if he’s prepared to change his vote.

If that happens, council should take a lesson from the chaos that followed I-526’s revival, and jettison this project again.

There are plenty of non-controversial road projects that need funding, including the Main Road flyover at U.S. 17, and the widening of S.C. 41 east of the Cooper.

As far as Johns Island projects, council should follow the lead of the Johns Island Task Force, which included the flyover plus widening Main Road and Maybank Highway on its priority list. Notably it did not include a plan to proceed again with the I-526 extension. It urged council to provide more funding for the Greenbelt program, needed for rural conservation.

The I-526 extension, which would cost $725 million, has been likened to the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, and certainly they match up as far as expense. But there was a broad community consensus to build the Ravenel Jr. Bridge, while I-526 has only seen controversy. And a disputed project of that scope can only mean problems for the pending referendum, if council decides to revive the November vote.

Sure, I-526 has its supporters, including the local Chamber of Commerce and Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg. It also has numerous critics who have previously showed up in the hundreds to oppose the road plan in public hearings.

In fact, the response from hearings in 2010 was so overwhelmingly negative that County Council voted to kill it.

Only the State Infrastructure Bank’s insistence that the county repay the state $11 million in planning and right-of-way expenses convinced the county to keep the project on life support.

I-526 has remained the focus of intense controversy, even while there is a general public recognition of the need for other road projects — none of which approaches the size, scope and cost of the beltway proposal.

At this point it’s not clear whether council will return to the referendum question this week. Certainly the confusion that has accompanied its handling of the matter won’t contribute to a sense of public confidence.

But there are important funding needs and the Charleston community can’t rely on the state. If council decides to try again, it should simplify the question by including only those projects that have broad support.

Asking the voters to tax themselves again is a sufficiently daunting proposition even without injecting a jarring element, like the I-526 plan.