DOT may vote on I-526 project Commission could decide Wednesday

The state Department of Transportation could decide next week whether to complete Interstate 526, closing at least a chapter in the story of the controversial road project that has been dividing groups in the Lowcountry and across the state.

At a meeting Thursday in Columbia, the DOT’s seven-member commission voted 4-3 to hold another meeting Wednesday to discuss, and possibly vote on, whether to take on the controversial project, which has become a political hot potato.

Commissioners Harrison Rearden, John P. Edwards, W.B. Cook and Clifton Parker were in favor of taking on the matter Wednesday. Jim Rozier, Eddie Adams and Craig Forrest were opposed.

Rearden said earlier this week that he thinks there is a lot of maneuvering behind the scenes on I-526, and that the project has become a political exercise. He would like to see the issue resolved quickly.

The Mark Clark Expressway issue was on the agenda for the group’s Thursday meeting, but it was pulled earlier this week.

Some commissioners said the matter was removed from the agenda because the project isn’t an official DOT project, which was confusing because the group was being asked to decide whether it would take on the project.

Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League, which is opposed to extending I-526 across Johns and James Islands, said he thought its removal from the agenda was influenced by project supporters, such as House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who knew it didn’t have enough votes to pass. Beach said in an informal poll he conducted, four of the seven commissioners would have voted against it.

Project supporters said the road is needed for safety and to alleviate traffic problems, while opponents said it will promote sprawl and development, and the state has many more pressing road needs.

Rozier, a commissioner from Moncks Corner, said he hopes the group doesn’t vote on the project next week. “I don’t think we should vote on something when it’s in a state of confusion,” he said.

Adams, who is chairman of the commission, said he thinks the confusion and problems come down to Charleston County Council trying to dump a big problem in the lap of the DOT. And he doesn’t want the commission mired in all the negative attention that taking a public vote on I-526 inevitably will bring.

Adams said there is a three-way agreement in place on I-526. Charleston County is the project sponsor, the DOT is the project manager, and the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank is paying for the road. And he thinks the agreement should remain that way.

County Council in January voted against building the road after the DOT’s preferred parkway plan received a majority of negative comments at public comment sessions. But the group reversed that decision when it learned it could be on the hook for more than $11 million already spent on the road. At that time, the county asked the DOT to take over the project. It has been waiting for a response from the department ever since.

Adams said he thinks Charleston County should move forward with the project, or simply agree to pay the $11 million. “They reversed their vote and tried to throw it at us,” he said.

Adams also is on the board of the Infrastructure Bank. In that role, he voted in favor of additional funding to complete the $558 million project. And he thinks the road is worthwhile project for the Lowcountry. “But I supported raising enough money to complete the project,” he said, not to accept the DOT as project manager.