By now we all know that the S.C. Department of Transportation (DOT) doesn’t want to build I-526. Chairman Eddie Adams perhaps spoke for all of the DOT commissioners when he said: “It’s going to be up to the courage of Charleston County Council to make a decision and act for the constituents they represent — do they want this project or not?”
He’s right. County Council started this debate back in 2005, and now it is time for its members to step up to the plate and finally end it. For good. Fortunately, the circumstances surrounding that decision are not nearly as dire or complicated as some would have us believe. In reality, it is not an all-or-nothing choice, and it will not necessarily require the repayment of more than $11 million in taxpayer dollars.
Consider the money that would supposedly be lost if the project is not completed. Council Chairman Teddie Pryor and others have said that if Charleston County decides not to build the road, it will have to pay $11.6 million back to the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank (SCTIB), to reimburse the entity for project-related costs accrued to date. At best, this explanation is misleading.
First, there is no clause in the contract between the SCTIB and the county that states Charleston County will have to pay money back if Council decides not to build the road.
Second, more than $6.7 million of the $11.6 million iwas used for real property by the SCDOT. Some of that property was purchased in the 1990s. So even with the state of the present real estate market, it is safe to say that the state could easily recoup the money by simply selling the land they purchased for this roadway. And if the County had to pay back money, it would not be more than $4.9 million.
Regardless of the amount, common sense tells us that it would be more fiscally responsible to return the money — even if it is $11.6 million — to avoid spending in excess of $558 million on a roadway the majority of the people in Charleston County don’t want.
And in spite of poorly phrased, oddly distributed polls that claim the contrary, the people of Charleston County certainly do not want it.
In 2005 members of Charleston County Council decided that extending 526 would be a good idea. They asked for money to build the road and they got it. Before a road can be built, however, the federal government requires an assessment of the impacts and benefits for which the road may be responsible. County Council and the DOT conducted an environmental impact study required by the federal government.
Just like a home inspection prior to purchase, this study revealed the pros and cons of spending money on this investment. Among other things, the study revealed that the negative impacts (including cost and community impacts on Johns Island and James Island) outweigh the benefits (36 seconds of time savings for James Island and West Ashley commuters and less than 5 minutes of savings for Johns Island commuters). As a result, County Council decided not to move forward with spending $558 million on the project.
Not only did a majority of County Council members act responsibly when they voted for a no-build alternative in 2011 and early 2012, but they acknowledged that I-526 isn’t the best solution to our transportation problems in Charleston County. In conjunction with the no-build resolution that they sent to the SCTIB, they prepared and submitted another application for funds. This application requested permission to use a portion of the 526 funding for improvements to roads and intersections in West Ashley, and on Johns and James Islands — including the intersection of Highway 17 and Main Road. These are all projects with very limited community impacts and proven significant transportation benefits. And they would cost less than $260 million.
Members of the SCDOT Commission continue to insist that maintenance of our current system is the most important investment we can make with public dollars. County Council learned through the process of evaluating I-526 that this project will not give us a benefit worth the cost of the project. County Council voted not to build the project. The DOT agreed with them. They, too, do not think the project is worth the expenditure, especially when an estimated 87 percent of S.C.’s roads are in need of moderate or serious repair.
There are a handful of elected leaders who continue to push this road project. They are applying political pressure on members of County Council to reverse its decision. And today, that is all that stands between us and the official demise of the wasteful, unnecessary I-526 extension.
With that in mind, I urge members of the community to speak to their council members and remind them that we elected them to speak for us. We should not spend $558 million to build a road that does not provide the traffic relief this region needs.
Tell them they got it right when they voted for the no-build alternative. They also got it right when they asked the SCTIB if we could use a portion of the money for necessary road improvements. This is not a choice between 526 and nothing at all. And it is not a time to spend more than $500 million to avoid the embarrassment of spending less than 1/50th of that amount.
Don’t back down now, Charleston County Council. You had the courage to say you didn’t want to do this project once. Now you need to do it again.
Please settle the I-526 question once and for all and let’s move forward — together — to build a smarter, safer, more sustainable Charleston.
Megan Desrosiers is assistant director of the Coastal Conservation League.