Vote on I-526 possible Dec. 13

The completion of Interstate 526 sparked the most heated conversation at Charleston County Council’s Tuesday meeting, and it wasn’t even on the agenda.

Council Chairman Teddie Pryor agreed to place a discussion, and possibly a vote, on whether to move forward with the project on the agenda for a Dec. 13 committee meeting.

During the public-comment portion before the start of the meeting, supporters and opponents addressed the group about their preferences for the future of the project. And most of them said they wanted a decision as soon as possible.

Council had voted in April 2011 to not move forward with the roadway extension, largely due to public opposition to the state Department of Transportation’s preferred alternative. That plan would complete the interstate loop with a low-speed parkway across Johns and James islands.

Council reversed its decision a month later after receiving a letter from a member of the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank’s board that said if the county did not move forward, it would be on the hook for $11.6 million already spent on the project.

The county then asked the DOT to take over the project, but the department’s commission voted last month against taking it on. It remains in the hands of County Council.

Megan Desrosiers, assistant director at the Coastal Conservation League, told council members that her group thinks that not building the road is a viable option under the law, and that making that choice does not represent default.

Desrosiers said that if the county again voted not to build the road, and there is a subsequent lawsuit from the Infrastructure Bank, her group would be willing to hire legal representation on behalf of Charleston County to fight it.

Pryor rebuffed her offer. “We don’t need your legal counsel. We have our own legal counsel,” he said. Then he suggested that the league instead put aside $11.6 million to pay for the default in case that becomes necessary.

Residents were passionate about their positions on the issue. James Island resident Eileen Lenz said almost all of her neighbors with whom she has spoken support the project. If I-526 was completed, “you could zip downtown in nothing flat,” she said.

Robin Welch, one of the leaders of the grass-roots opposition group Nix 526, said members want this to end. Many people have put in a lot time fighting the road, she said. And each time they appear to have a victory, “it’s snatched away from us.”

Councilman Dickie Schweers, who pushed to get a discussion on the agenda, said he had hoped for a quicker decision.

Pryor said in late September that county staffers would have 45 days to make a presentation on possible alternatives and their ramifications. Now a decision won’t come until at least mid-December. He thinks council members would be ready to vote sooner than that. “I can’t imagine what staff would bring us that’s new.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.