Charleston County asked the state to consider different alternatives for the Mark Clark Expressway project -- after the chosen plan proved widely unpopular -- but the Department of Transportation is essentially saying it's got to be done that way, or no highway.
S.C. Transportation Secretary Buck Limehouse said in a letter to county officials that they could pursue a different plan than the state's "alternative G," but that would mean ending the current, lengthy environmental review process with a "no build" decision.
Then the county would need to start over with a new plan, a new environmental review, and would need to renegotiate a funding agreement with
the State Infrastructure Bank.
The questions of whether and how to extend the Mark Clark (Interstate 526) from West Ashley to Johns Island and James Island has been kicking around since the 1970s, but for some property owners in the path of the current plan, it's a matter of some urgency. They are trapped in a real estate limbo, unable to sell homes in the highway's path, unable to build on land there, and the state won't buy them out with the road plan in question.
The DOT's response to the county's request to consider other alternatives only came to light because one of those embattled property owners discussed the letter at the end of a County Council meeting Thursday.
Neither the county nor the DOT had informed the public of Limehouse's decision in the Nov. 18 letter, and some County Council members only learned of the situation second-hand. According to DOT officials, the state's hands are tied by federal regulations, and they cannot include the county's proposal in the current review.
"We're not opposed to it," said Ron Patton, the DOT's chief engineer for planning, location and design. "We're an agent for the county on this project."
The plans at issue are:
--Alternative G, the $489 million plan chosen by the state from among dozens of options, to complete I-526 from West Ashley to Johns and James islands. The highway would become a lower-speed parkway, with a bike path and connections to side streets on James Island.
--The county's proposal, from Councilmen Vic Rawl and Elliott Summey, would extend I-526 only to Johns Island, then connect it to River Road, which could be widened out to Kiawah and Seabrook islands. Rawl estimates the plan would cost $180 million less than Alternative G while addressing opposition on James Island.
Deputy Charleston County Administrator Kurt Taylor said county officials had been trying to sort out the DOT response before presenting information to County Council.
Taylor noted that Limehouse had initially been warm to the county's proposal, saying: "I sort of like it."
"When we got his letter, kind of 180 degrees different, we wanted to get with him and find out what the disconnect was," said Taylor, who met with Limehouse Thursday. "We believe there are different points of view, on the points raised in his letter."
A key issue is whether the county's proposal meets the "stated purpose and need" of the project. Limehouse's letter said the plan does not meet that need, and that's why the county would need a new funding plan and environmental study in order to pursue it.
James Island resident Graham Finch obtained a copy of the letter, which is public information, during his pursuit of answers about the project. Finch is among residents with property in the highway's path.
Limehouse said in his letter that the state won't consider purchasing property for the highway right of way "until Charleston County can fully support a recommended preferred alternative."
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said the county had asked DOT to work with the property owners.
"I feel sorry that they can't make the payments and can't sell the property, but it's not fair to blame the county and the state," he said.
Councilman Dickie Schweers is opposed to extending the highway, and said he only learned of the DOT letter because Finch told him about it.
"I don't think it was any accident that the letter was not widely distributed," Schweers said. "More than anything, that (letter) convinces me that if we did convince DOT to move forward, we would be very vulnerable to lawsuits."
He said the fact that DOT believes the county's proposal doesn't meet the purpose and need of the project would give ammunition to critics of the highway plan. Opponents include local residents, the towns of James Island and Folly Beach, the Coastal Conservation League, the National Marine Fisheries Service and Department of Natural Resources.
Limehouse's letter appeared to leave little room for compromise, as far as considering the county's proposal. Limehouse did not return phone calls Friday, but Patton, after speaking with Limehouse, said the letter just lays out the facts about federal regulations.
Taylor and Pryor appeared confident of a compromise of some sort can be reached.
"Their saying that there is a change in purpose and need is one of the things we disagree on," said Taylor. "It's not quite as door-slamming as the letter seems."