Charleston County is out of the interstate-building business.
The County Council on Tuesday night gave up control of the long-stalled Interstate 526 project on Johns and James islands. Members voted 7-2 in favor of turning over the nearly $500 million project to the state Department of Transportation, but it remains unclear whether the road will be finished.
While the vote frees the county of having to pay back more than $11 million already spent on the project, it removes it from local control.
Council members Colleen Condon, Dickie Schweers, Anna Johnson, Teddie Pryor, Elliott Summey, Vic Rawl and Herb Sass voted in favor of turning over the project. Joe Qualey and Henry Darby were opposed.
Most council members voting in favor of turning over to the state the controversial project said they did so to save taxpayers' money and to protect the county's bond rating.
"We don't have the control we're assumed to have," Rawl said. "We don't really have a choice. The only option we have is to get out from under it."
And Summey said, "This is the only life preserver we're going to get."
Qualey said he voted against the motion because it meant giving up local control. "I think things that affect local people should stay with local government," he said.
Last week, the State Infrastructure Bank said the county would be freed of financial liability if it agreed to turn it over to the DOT.
If the county refused the agreement and the road were not built, the county would be responsible for repaying the $11 million it has spent on engineering and right-of-way studies.
The County Council voted last spring not to build the I-526 project because the DOT's recommended route had little support. The group backtracked on that decision after the state bank declared the county in default and ordered it to repay the $11 million. The project has been in limbo since.
State bank officials have said moving control of the project to the DOT could be what's necessary to save it and ensure that the road is built.
But state Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, last week said the DOT is a financially troubled agency. He wasn't sure how high a priority completing the project would be.
After Tuesday's County Council meeting, J. Ronald Jones, chairman of the board of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, which supports completing I-526, said he is disappointed that the project can't be finished at the local level.
But, he said, turning it over is "better than sitting around doing what we've been doing for the past year and a half."
Kate Parks of the Coastal Conservation League, a group opposed to the project, said the state bank is being "disrespectful to the local democratic process" for moving forward with a project that has "no local sponsor and no local support."