Attempt to stop I-526 quashed Sen. Grooms gets item off agenda

I-526 from the Leeds Avenue overpass toward the Westmoreland Bridge in February.

GREENVILLE — The state transportation board was poised Thursday to stop the I-526 extension from moving forward, according to state Sen. Larry Grooms.

But Grooms said he made sure that vote never happened. It was removed from the group’s agenda.

Instead, the S.C. Department of Transportation Commission heard presentations for and against the $558 million road across Johns and James Island.

It also discussed updating the contract for the project, the next step in moving the highway forward.

The project’s initial $420 million contract is known as an Intergovernmental Agreement, and it involves three parties: Charleston County was the project’s sponsor, the DOT was responsible for building the road, and the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank was responsible for paying for it.

Grooms, a Berkeley County Republican and chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee, said the commission was prepared to make a motion to stop the controversial project. “But, I called a few folks and the agenda was changed,” he said.

Commission Chairman John Edwards said Charleston County and DOT staffers will begin meeting to fine-tune a new contract. The commission likely will consider and vote on it at a meeting in December. Edwards made no comments on the change in the agenda.

Many Charlestonians traveled more than 200 miles to attend the meeting on the completion of I-526, which has been hotly debated for years. Representatives from the opposition group Nix 526, Charleston County Council members and staffers, state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis and Bryan Derreberry and Stuart Whiteside, from Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce showed up for the event in the Greenville County Council chambers. The meeting included presentations from Elliott Summey, Charleston County Council’s vice chairman, who supports the project, and Robin Welch and Rich Thomas from Nix 526, who are opposed to it.

Grooms said he warned the commission that voting against the updated contract would set a “horrendous precedent.” A previous set of commissioners approved a contract for the project, he said. Members of public bodies always change, but they must honor the decisions made by their predecessors. If they didn’t, “then no projects are protected,” Grooms said.

At the commission’s September meeting, commissioners balked at signing off on the proposal to move forward with the road, amid concerns about Charleston County’s request to manage the project, which traditionally is the role of the DOT. The project’s price also must be updated because it has climbed substantially in recent years.

But commissioners Thursday said Charleston County and DOT staffers would meet to discuss a way that the county could manage the project and allow the DOT to have some oversight.

Commissioner Harrison Rearden said he was mystified by the way the contract plan was changing and seemingly moving forward. “I am curious why all of a sudden the DOT is not the one to manage the project,” he said. “There is something going on in the back room in reference to this Intergovernmental Agreement.”

Commissioners in September also raised concerns about the financial implications of an amendment in the county’s resolution to build the road. The amendment, proposed by Councilwoman Anna Johnson, states that the county must make a good-faith effort to compensate property owners who live within 1,000 feet of the road for a drop in the value of their property.

DOT lawyer Linda McDonald said she’s not aware of a case in South Carolina where a court awarded money to a property owner for a drop in the value of his or her land if no property actually was taken.

Summey told commissioners that the county is willing to work closely with the DOT to manage the project. And, the DOT doesn’t have to worry about financial compensation for people who live within 1,000 feet of the road or any other “quality of life amendments,” Summey said. “Quality-of-life issues are local issues,” he said.

Robin Welch, one of the founders of Nix 526 said the road was not the solution to traffic problems and would be a huge waste of taxpayer money. For instance, she said, the DOT already has built two four-lane bridges onto Johns Island, but both of them connect to two-lane roads. Johns Island doesn’t need more bridges, she said. But someone needs to fix the traffic bottlenecks.

Grooms said he’s pleased the commission’s attempt to possibly stop the project was quashed. “I hope it doesn’t come up again,” he said.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.