The $11.6 million bludgeon

A roadside sign warns that Interstate 526 ends in West Ashley.

Charleston County staff has been instructed to examine options related to I-526 in the wake of the state highway commission’s decision not to sponsor the project. Not surprisingly, Council Chairman Teddie Pryor, who ordered the review, is mainly interested in options to finish the project.

Mr. Pryor outlined his expectations for extending I-526 in a letter to the editor published Thursday on our Opinion page. Co-signed by Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey, the letter called the project a “critical piece of our region’s infrastructure.”

Mr. Pryor should be reminded that the majority of County Council doesn’t necessarily share his view. Council rejected the I-526 extension in 2011, and only agreed to back off after a member of the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) said the county would be liable for $11.6 million already spent on the project. Altogether, the SIB has committed $558 million to the extension of I-526, also known as the Mark Clark Expressway.

And even then council didn’t endorse the project. It merely kept it on life support while the highway commission considered whether to take on the proposal.

Now that the highway is back in the county’s court, Mr. Pryor is again raising the $11.6 million specter. In his letter, he stated that “there are serious enforcement provisions in the Mark Clark contract, including the power of the SIB to intercept funds due to the county from the state, if the county were to refuse a demand by the SIB to repay a default.”

He added, “It has thus been clear for more than 18 months that the SIB feels Charleston County will be responsible for the reimbursement of the $11.6 million spent to date if we do not find a way to move forward.”

But an analysis of the $11.6 million question by Christopher DeScherer of the Southern Environmental Law Center concludes that the SIB spokesman and Mr. Pryor are greatly overstating the case. Indeed, he concludes that the $11.6 million threat and an assertion that a breach of the debt could damage the county’s credit rating are “baseless attempts to intimidate the county into continuing to pursue a deeply flawed project.”

“If the county again selects the no-build alternative based on the lack of transportation benefits of the Mark Clark Expressway, the expensive price tag and unclear funding picture, the lack of public support or any other legitimate reason, such a decision will not violate or break any provision of the Intergovernmental Agreement” with the SIB, Mr. DeScherer wrote.

He cited federal rules requiring the kind of careful review, including public input, that led up to the county’s initial rejection of the project. Any attempt to force repayment would effectively short-circuit the due diligence undertaken by the county, in violation of those rules, he concluded.

The Law Center’s brief was prepared at the request of the Coastal Conservation League, an opponent of the project.

Of course, the $11.6 million threat isn’t the only pressure being applied since the highway commission sent the plan back to County Council. Indeed, there are concerted campaigns on both sides of the issue.

The SIB demand can only be settled by mutual agreement or in court. But Mr. DeScherer’s extensively researched and persuasive analysis should at least ease council’s collective mind on the $11.6 million bludgeon that periodically has been flourished over its head.

And that should promote clear thinking by council on this controversial issue. Council’s judgment shouldn’t be clouded by unwarranted duress.

Nor should the county staff’s review of council’s options be driven by Chairman Pryor’s devotion to the project.

He represents one of nine votes on council, not the last word.