A decision on whether to finish the Mark Clark Expressway is proceeding about as slowly as rush-hour traffic.
Charleston County Council voted 8-1 at its meeting Tuesday to have county staffers figure out the options and ramifications for completing or not completing Interstate 526 from West Ashley across Johns and James Islands to the James Island connector. Only Henry Darby was opposed. Council will discuss those options and their consequences at a public meeting in February.
Although Tuesday's action may not sound like much progress on the controversial $489 million project, it marked the first public discussion on the issue since May. That's when talks between the county, the S.C. Department of Transportation and the State Infrastructure Bank stalled.
Many people who want the road completed showed up to make clear to council members that they thought support was great for completion of the expressway, although many of them don't support the Transportation Department's preferred alternative.
Mary Graham, a senior vice president for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, said her group wants the road completed as an expressway. It doesn't support DOT's recommended plan — "alternative G," which would be a low-speed parkway. An expressway, she said, "will get workers to work and goods and services to customers."
While Graham and members of her group want the road completed, many residents of Johns and James islands are strongly opposed to extending I-526 in any form.
Public opposition to the project was so loud last spring that County Council in April unanimously rejected the DOT's preferred alternative.
That led to the State Infrastructure Bank knocking on the county's door for the return of more than $11 million spent on the road so far. In response, council repealed its "no-build" decision in a 5-4 vote in May, leaving the project's future undecided.
Kate Parks, a program director for the Coastal Conservation League, said her group continues to oppose building either "alternative G" or an expressway. The environmental group instead wants to see existing roads repaired and improved. "There are higher priorities in Charleston County and higher priorities in the state," than completing I-526, Parks said.
County Council is responsible for doing things that benefit county residents, Parks said. "That's not I-526."
J. Mitchell Bohannon, co-chairman of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce's Infrastructure Task Force, said completing I-526 might not be the greatest need for alleviating traffic congestion right now. But it will be soon, he said. Most of the money for the project is available now, he said. So it makes sense to take advantage of the $420 million now available and complete the road. "It's a window of opportunity," he said. "At some point in time, that road is going to be built."
Councilman Dickie Schweers, who is opposed to completing the Mark Clark, said he wasn't sure there was anything to be gained by waiting to vote again on whether to complete I-526. He would prefer to vote his conscience now, he said. That could mean the county ends up fighting the State Infrastructure Bank in court over the more than $11 million spent on the project. But he would be willing to do that.
"I think, once again, we're delaying a tough decision and a tough vote," he said. "This is a difficult process, and we got here in a convoluted way. It's time to move on."