Controversy surrounding the Interstate 526 project across Johns and James islands has prompted the S.C. Department of Transportation to ask Charleston County for a "formalized decision" on whether to go forward.
"The owner of the project (Charleston County) has got the option here of keeping the project going or pulling the plug," state Transportation Secretary Buck Limehouse said.
A funding shortfall and public opposition to the project are issues for the SCDOT as expressed in a Monday letter from Limehouse to Charleston County Administrator Allen O'Neal.
The eight-mile-long highway would include five miles of bridges, including two 80-foot-tall spans over the Stono River. The project would connect Folly Road at the James Island connector with I-526 where it intersects U.S. Highway 17. As currently envisioned, right-of-way acquisition would begin in about a year.
Opponents said at recent public hearings that the project was not in keeping with the character of Johns and James islands. They said it would harm the environment, and the $489 million price tag could be better spent improving existing roads. Supporters said it would improve traffic flow, make for safer travel and help evacuation of the islands in the event of a hurricane.
In June 2007, the SCDOT agreed to manage the project for Charleston County. Six public hearings on a draft Environmental Impact Statement recently concluded with speakers opposed to the project by a 2-1 ratio, Limehouse wrote in his letter.
Limehouse said Tuesday the significant public opposition to the project is a factor. Those opposed included 1,033 speakers at public hearings compared with 522 giving opinions in favor of the Mark Clark Expressway.
"We've certainly got to deal with the objections if we're going to move forward," he said.
The SCDOT needs some guidance from Charleston County Council before proceeding with a final Environmental Impact Statement on I-526, he said.
A majority of the nine-member
County Council has supported completing I-526, but there is opposition to the preferred alternative recommended by SCDOT, and concerns about the funding.
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said he sees no need for a council vote on whether to continue the impact statement process because three years ago the council voted 7-2 to contract with the state to complete the highway.
"I am in favor with going forward with the EIS," Pryor said. "We could come back (later) and say we don't like this alternative, and we want something different," he said.
"We're not going to take a vote on this," Pryor said. "We've already voted on this, in 2007."
Elliott Summey, vice chairman of council, was less supportive of the highway plan.
"There are four members of council who would vote to kill it today, the people on Johns Island and James Island are against it, we wasted $20 million buying rights of way before the right of way was established," he said. "What in the hell's bells are we doing?"
Summey said he would vote against continuing with plans to extend the Mark Clark Expressway if completing the highway would require any additional county money. At the same time, Summey is hoping to find a way that Charleston County could keep some of the Mark Clark money pledged by the State Infrastructure Bank.
"We could really do a whole lot with $400 million to affect traffic in Charleston, and none of it has anything to do with I-526," he said. "If we pull the plug on 526, I don't want to see the money go to Greenville."
Most of the money for the Mark Clark Expressway is currently in the form of a pledge from the infrastructure bank. The bank has pledged $420 million, which is $69 million less than the estimated project cost.
County Councilman Dickie Schweers is one of two members on council who voted against the project in 2007 at a time when Schweers said there was considerable pressure from members of the Legislature for the county to approve the Mark Clark Expressway contract.
"I think (Limehouse) is asking the obvious question, which is whether we want to go forward with this thing," Schweers said. "My answer is 'no,' but I've been opposed all along."
He said council members who voted for the project in 2007 might be able to gracefully back away by pointing to the arrival of Boeing, which changed many priorities related to growth and development. Schweers said that since 2007 there also have been public hearings on the Mark Clark Expressway plan with clear results.
"The public hearings were supposed to serve a purpose, and the public has made it abundantly clear that they are opposed to it," he said. "I think that we should scrap the Mark Clark extension, wipe it from the books, and focus on solving the transportation problems that we do have."
Schweers said taxpayers ultimately pick up the tab for projects funded through the infrastructure bank.
The Mark Clark Expressway would have significant environmental impacts on Johns and James islands. Up to 30 acres of tidal wetlands and creeks on the islands are expected to be shaded from bridges built for the project, which could affect whether they survive, scientists have said. Up to 20 acres of salt marsh wetlands would be filled for road construction and later restored. About 17 acres of wetlands, including 3 acres of salt marsh, would be permanently destroyed by the construction, according to state Ocean and Coastal Resource Management.
"I think the environmentalists are prepared to litigate. That typically raises the cost," Limehouse said.
The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Coastal Conservation League oppose the project. Obstacles to the Mark Clark Expressway are public opposition, a $69 million funding shortfall and a lack of support from James Island Town Council, said Josh Martin, Coastal Conservation League program director of land use.
"Perhaps this is not the best project for our region," Martin said. The funds could be better spent improving existing roads, he said.