County wants I-526 vote changed

While the future of Interstate 526 on James and Johns islands remains undecided, Charleston County Council has asked the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank to reverse its vote declaring the county in default on the $11.6 million it has received so far for the project.

At stake is millions of extra dollars the county would pay in higher interest because its bond rating will suffer if the default stays on its record, Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said.

If the bank board votes to remove the default, the county would proceed to explore its I-526 options, which could include paying the money back in an installment plan or proceeding with some version of the project, Pryor said this week.

"We're trying to get out of a bad contract," he said.

Pryor has suggested a scaled-down version of I-526 from Savannah Highway that ends at Maybank Highway on Johns Island.

Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey said the county wants to renegotiate the terms of its I-526 contract with the Infrastructure Bank and the state Department of Transportation. "The county feels handcuffed, to an extent," he said.

Summey said the contract delegates responsibility for the project to the county but gives it little authority. Summey wants a "real public process" on the future of the seven-mile road planned across both Johns and James islands from Savannah Highway to the James Island connector.

Most who spoke at five public hearings were against the highway. Opponents totaled 1,033. Road supporters, whom some called a "silent majority," mostly stayed away from the hearings.

"The folks who want the road better show up," Summey said. "We should do what the majority of folks want."

Lonnie Hamilton III, who served on council for more than 20 years, said there were more than 100 public hearings before council made a decision to build a county incinerator. More public input on the project should have been received before $6 million was spent to acquire land for the interstate rights of way, he said.

"Council has got themselves in a minefield right now," Hamilton said. "They've got to be very careful. I would not want to be in their place."

The DOT, not the county, spent the $6 million on rights of way, Summey said.

Council voted 5-4 on May 17 to rescind its "no-build" vote on the $489 million project after the bank board voted that the county was in default on the $11.6 million it has spent so far. Council members Colleen Condon, Dickie Schweers, Joe Qualey and Herb Sass cast the opposing votes.

The council vote was a step toward getting out of default on the $11.6 million received from the bank, county officials said.

The bank, which financed the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, pledged $420 million for completion of I-526 across both islands.

"They've been good to Charleston. Obviously we've got some fences to mend," Summey said.

Bank Board Chairman Don Leonard said the board understands that the county is facing difficult decisions. Leonard said the board will vote on a recommendation from its attorney on the county request to have the default removed from its record. The date of that board vote was not immediately known. The request was received in a letter from the county, he said.

"We simply want to provide any assistance that we can," Leonard said.