Another blow appears to be in store for the controversial completion of the Mark Clark Expressway across Johns and James islands.
Charleston County Council lobbed the political hot potato to the state Department of Transportation early this year. The DOT Commission last week voted unanimously against taking on the project, effectively tossing it back to council, where at least five of the nine members, which constitutes a majority, said they are inclined to vote against it.
But powerful project supporters, such as S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, continue to push for the $558 million road project.
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said he has asked staff members to prepare a report on the county’s options for Interstate 526, and to present it to council within 45 days.
Pryor is one of three council members who said they continue to support a parkway-style design for the extension of I-526, so the road forms a loop around the Charleston area. One member said she remains undecided.
Pryor acknowledged that the parkway plan, which the DOT selected as its preferred alternative, hasn’t garnered widespread support. He wants staffers to find out how much the road’s design can be modified without having to repeat a long and arduous DOT approval process. That process involved a dozen public meetings and the presentation of several alternatives.
Harrell said he thinks County Council should settle on another design for the road, one that would satisfy more people. Then it should hold a public hearing on that plan. He added that if the county had to start over on the approval process, it would be worth the effort. “Let’s do it the right way,” Harrell said.
Harrell also said he thinks some council members could reconsider their decisions because money now is available for the project, and a DOT survey found that the majority of people who would be affected by the road support it.
The DOT survey results contradicted the outcome from public hearings on the project, where the majority who commented were opposed to the road.
Coastal Conservation League Director Dana Beach, a vocal opponent of the project, likened modifying the road’s design to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. “It’s not the design,” Beach said. “It’s that people don’t want the road.”
Opponents have said the road would promote sprawl, especially on Johns Island, and that the state has more pressing road projects. Supporters have said the project is needed to alleviate traffic congestion and make local roads safer.
Councilman Herb Sass said he thinks the design is a problem that probably can’t be resolved. County Council must build something most people don’t want, he said, or give up all the money for the project.
Pryor also said the county would be on the hook for $11.6 million already spent on the project if council decided not to build it. And taxpayers would foot the bill.
Councilman Dickie Schweers, a project opponent, said he thinks Pryor and council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey are inflating the threat that the county could have to pay back the money, using it as a scare tactic to bring more council members to their side.
Schweers said he thinks the money was legitimately spent on the process, and the resulting decision not to build the road is a viable option. Only a judge can determine if the county would have to repay the money, he said. And he thinks the county could make a strong case to support not having to pay it back.
Schweers also said he hopes council makes a decision on I-526 soon, because conflict around the project is diverting council’s attention from other local road priorities. “As long as I-526 is on the table, nothing else will happen.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.
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