Facebook forum for council criticism

Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said Charleston County Council’s decision to walk away from the Interstate 526 expansion project does nothing to ease traffic trouble in his West Ashley district, or on Savannah Highway and on James and Johns islands.

The state lawmaker whose West Ashley district anchors where the final section of Interstate 526 was to go is using social media to rip into Charleston County leadership for nixing the deal.

"I have never seen elected officials voluntarily breach a contract at the expense of tax payers before," state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis wrote as part of a string of posts on his Facebook page.

He went on to call Charleston County Council's move to give up on completing the highway "arogant (sic) and irresponsible."

The charge was especially true, he said, because taxpayers are likely to be on the hook for reimbursing the State Infrastructure Bank a minimum of $12 million that already has been spent on right-of-way acquisitions and environmental studies.

Stavrinakis said Friday that council's decision to walk away from the project without producing anything does nothing toward alleviating the ever-increasing traffic woes in his West Ashley district, or on Savannah Highway and on James and Johns islands.

"Council was handed a deal that brought in a half-a-billion-dollar piece of infrastructure to Charleston County, without costing local taxpayers a dollar," he said.

The majority of the council members who worked against the project said they did so because of the public's overwhelming sentiments against it.

Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, a former member of County Council, said he had never been as vocal on an issue on the Internet, except when he has used "e-traffic" in campaigning.

The comments further illustrate the divide over the quashed expansion of I-526, also known as the Mark Clark Expressway, and how some advocates are hoping to rekindle the completion of the loop in some fashion. "I'm not convinced that the project is dead," Stavrinakis said. "I'm not ready to give up on it."

The nearly $490 million project was essentially dealt a death blow in the past two weeks after County Council voted against completing the route in any fashion, including as a moderate-speed, ground-level parkway.

Instead, they want the state to concentrate on addressing inadequacies to the area's existing road network.

The request, however, sets up a major point of friction.

While the S.C. Department of Transportation said it will not unilaterally build onto I-526 without County Council's support, it has repeatedly taken the position that the major, needed improvements can be accomplished only by extending I-526 from West Ashley to Johns and James islands, linking the existing highway to the James Island connector.

Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said Friday that he understands the basis for Stavrinakis' comments, but that now he is focused on putting together a team of county officials to approach the Infrastructure Bank about amending the contract that set up the I-526 expansion package years ago.

Pryor said he hopes to go to Columbia within the next two weeks to pursue a resolution that he said would "make both sides whole." Quick timing in reaching a settlement is a priority, he said, because the county is about to resume its 2011 budget-drafting process next month.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, a member of the Infrastructure Bank's governing board, said Friday that he wants to see what Pryor and his team come up with in terms of a settlement, and that whatever it is he would do his best to mitigate any potential hit the county faces.

But Limehouse also warned that $12 million is a large amount of money to forgive and that it may be an amount too large to ignore. "At the end of the day," he said, "the bank board most likely will expect to be paid back."

One possible source already identified to collect the $12 million is money that flows from the state to the county, known as Aid to Subdivisions.

No meeting time to discuss Charleston County's decision has been scheduled by the Infrastructure Bank, but it is expected to be, a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, other groups are celebrating the apparent death of an expanded I-526, issuing praises for County Council for bucking the trend of building new roads, instead of fixing up older ones.

"This decision puts Charleston on the map," said Kate Parks, program director for the Coastal Conservation League.

"As cities across the country are tearing down highways to support community revival, Charleston has rightly chosen not to extend a highway, not to build two bridges to a rural area and not to consume the entirety of our transportation resources on a project that is no where near the highest regional or state priority," Parks said.