Building the Interstate 526 extension will prove more difficult now that Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey has been discovered playing both sides of the argument.
The Post and Courier reported this month that secretly made recordings from opposition group Nix 526 show Summey had been presenting himself as the public champion of the highway extension while meeting quietly with opponents to shut it down.
Groups that oppose the road across Johns and James Islands — including Nix 526 and the Coastal Conservation League — already have said they would not support a half-cent sales tax referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot. Future income from that sales tax is required to fund a deal that could indirectly allow the road project to move forward.
But now, several groups that think I-526 desperately needs to be completed also are publicly opposing the referendum, largely because they don’t trust local officials to build the road even if the referendum passes.
Teresa Tidestrom, executive director of West Ashley United, said she and most of the group’s 2,700 members support the completion of I-526, but they won’t vote in favor of the referendum. The average citizen is fed up, she said.
“Nobody wants the good ol’ boy network and back-room deals anymore,” she said. “What they want is to be part of these conversations. They want transparency, and they want to know the people we elected are championing the causes we elected them for.”
Tidestrom said she already had strong doubts about the latest plan for funding I-526 before she listened to the Summey recordings. “But they solidified I cannot, in good faith, vote for a package that is not transparent.”
Brad Taggart, a leader of Charlestonians for I-526, which has 10,600 members on its Facebook page, said his group isn’t going to support the referendum.
“Unless I-526, or some part of it, is on the ballot, in writing, we’re not supporting it,” he said. “We’re now less likely to take people at their word on I-526.”
Administrators on the group’s Facebook page on Oct. 12 called Summey’s actions “the most gut-wrenching story of betrayal that our area has seen in a long time.”
They stated “We must vote down this half-cent sales tax. 526 isn’t on it. It’s clear now why that happened, and after hearing this it is clear that whatever arrangement they’re claiming they now have to build 526 is just another lie.”
But Taggart said having Summey’s thoughts and actions come to light might ultimately bode well for the highway extension. Perhaps it has a better chance when someone isn’t quietly undermining it, he said.
The Johns Island Community Association, whose members have much at stake in the I-526 fight, released a statement, saying “This referendum could have solved a lot of problems in this county, but it is clear that Elliott Summey does not have Johns Islanders’ best interests in mind. So long as he is council chair, it is impossible for us to support the half-cent sales tax referendum.”
The group, which has an email list of 1,400, also chastised the Coastal Conservation League and Nix 526.
“Secretly recording private meetings destroys trust and severely undermines our community-building efforts. It makes it very difficult for us to work with the Coastal Conservative League and the Nix-526 group moving forward. ... We want to take the high road and distance ourselves from the people involved in this fiasco.”
Ed Bryant, president of the NAACP’s North Charleston chapter, said he also has concerns about the referendum. He doesn’t think the black community saw enough benefit from the 2004 referendum, so he can’t see why it should support the upcoming one.
Bryant also said he doesn’t think minority contractors landed enough road-related contracts from the 2004 referendum.
“You’re taxing us and we’re not getting anything in return,” he said.
Rail overpass deal
The highway extension has polarized Charleston County for a decade.
The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank board, which is funding the project, voted in May to shut the door on it and began the process of unwinding its $420 million contract because the county failed to submit a plan to cover cost overruns.
The estimated price tag has jumped to $725 million, making it the most expensive infrastructure project in the state’s history.
But some state leaders have said they think the seven-member board might reverse that decision at its next meeting, and give the county the money and the green light to move forward with the road. That meeting is expected to be held later this month — shortly before the Nov. 8 vote.
It’s all part of a proposal from Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and Summey to the Infrastructure Bank board.
The proposal aims to revive the controversial project by promising that the county would pay up to $150 million from the proposed sales-tax increase for four rail overpasses near the new port terminal in North Charleston. Under a previous legal settlement, the state is required to complete three of those overpasses before the Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal opens in 2019.
Bank board chairman Vince Graham said he’s not sure if any members will ask the board at its next meeting to reverse its previous decision on I-526. But, he said, Tecklenburg and former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley have been lobbying some board members pretty hard.
Tecklenburg said that he and Summey presented their proposal to the bank board in good faith. “Elliott certainly said some things that were not thoughtful” in the recordings, Tecklenburg said, “but I’m keeping my eyes on the prize.”
He hopes voters will “look at the big picture” and see that the referendum is needed for I-526, the rail overpasses and other projects, including the widening of S.C. Highway 41 in Mount Pleasant.