SC DOT votes unanimously not to take over I-526 project

The SC DOT is meeting Wednesday, Sept. 26 to vote on the completion of Interstate 526. (File photo/Wade Spees/Staff)

COLUMBIA - The state Department of Transportation’s commission today dealt a huge blow to the completion of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands, when it voted unanimously against taking over the project.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a strong supporter of the project, was in attendance. Grass roots opponents from the group Nix 526 also showed up in force.

Riley likened the uncompleted project to an incomplete coronary bypass operation that will inevitably lead to a heart attack.

Several commissioners chastised Charleston County Council for sending the project to the DOT for a decision.

Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said the vote means the county will have to return $11.6 million it borrowed from the State Infrastructure Bank for I-526 or build the road.

“This project is not dead until Charleston County decides we are not going to build it,” Pryor said.

Pryor said the completion of I-526 is necessary for public safety.

State Rep. Mike Sottile, R-Isle of Palms, said he was disappointed by the vote.

“We need to figure out a way to complete I-526. Traffic is going to get worse and worse over there,” he said.

Sottile said the last leg of I-526 matters for safe hurricane evacuation from Kiawah, Johns and Seabrook islands.

Charleston County Councilman Herb Sass said the vote on I-526 was expected.

“I can’t say I’m surprised. I guess it’s back to the drawing board,” he said.

Sass said County Council needs to look at whether spending $558 million on I-526 is the best use of the money.

“There are a lot of big traffic needs in the Charleston area,” he said.

Improvements to the intersection of Main Road and U.S. 17 are needed whether or not I-526 is built, he said. The Stono River and Limehouse bridges are built to carry four lanes but have only two lanes, he said. “I want to get the best bang for the buck,” he said.

Johns Island resident Thomas Legare, co-chair of Concerned Citizens of the Sea Islands, said he was happy with the DOT commission decision.

“I’m tickled to death with it. I think it’s a great move on their part,” Legare said.

He said the county has more important things to worry about such as improvements to existing roads rather than building a new section of interstate. He noted that traffic flowed for the most part in a timely way during the 50,000 visitors to the PGA Tournament at Kiawah Island. “I don’t think that evacuation is going to be a problem,” he said.

Bill Saunders, also co-chair of Concerned Citizens of the Sea Islands, has spoken out against the road for years.

“The real thing that makes us feel good is all of the commissioners voted against it. This road would really destroy Johns Island,” he said.

Saunders said the completion of I-526 is not a safety issue. He said that he knows the issue will be back on the front burner among supporters at County Council.

“It’s going to take them a while to regroup from where they are night now,” he said.

The 8-mile-long, four-lane highway would include five miles of bridges, including two 80-foot-tall spans over the Stono River. The project would connect Folly Road at the James Island connector with I-526 where it intersects U.S. Highway 17.

Supporters cite better traffic flow, safety and hurricane evacuation. Opponents worry about environmental damage and irreparable harm to the character of the islands. Some opponents fear losing their homes or livelihoods because of the highway.

In January, the Infrastructure Bank board voted unanimously to shift responsibility for the highway from the county to the state DOT, subject to the county and DOT signing off on the change. County Council agreed to the change.

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Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.