Wade Spees // The Post and Courier

Opponents and proponents of the Interstate 526 project turned out Tuesday to give input at Charleston County Council’s meeting.

Charleston County backtracked on its opposition to the Mark Clark Expressway project Tuesday night in order to avoid having to pay back $11.6 million in state funding.

County Council voted 5-4 to rescind a decision to not build Interstate 526 over Johns and James islands, but the future of the project remains unclear.

Colleen Condon, Dickie Schweers, Joe Qualey and Herb Sass were opposed to changing last month's "no-build" vote.

The county violated its agreement with the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank and the South Carolina Department of Transportation when it decided not to build the road, the bank said.

For that reason, the bank board voted Thursday that the county had 60 days to repay the funds.

The situation meant the county would have to lay off employees or cut services to balance the budget, council Chairman Teddie Pryor said.

The $11.6 million was spent on environmental studies, engineering and land acquisition for I-526. Some $6 million went to acquiring property for the road rights of way.

The county wants to negotiate a new agreement with the bank and SCDOT that will allow it more flexibility in deciding what kind of road to build, Pryor said.

He favors a smaller version of the project costing about $200 million. It would begin at Savannah Highway and go to Maybank Highway.

The bank approved $420 million for a seven-mile four-lane road over the islands from Savannah Highway to the James Island connector.

Councilman Elliott Summey said the county will negotiate new terms with the bank that will allow it to reopen the public comment process for the project.

"Now we can really get a feel for what everybody wants," he said.

At five public hearings last fall, comment was overwhelmingly against the highway. Summey said 1,033 people said they don't want the extension. But he noted there is a "silent majority" that favors the road.

The default would damage the county's credit as it seeks to borrow funds for other road work, Pryor said.

Prior to the vote, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the I-526 project is essential. Otherwise, by 2035, traffic in West Ashley and on the islands will be a nightmare, he said.

Fears that the highway will lead to rampant growth on rural Johns Island are unfounded, he said, because development can be controlled through planning and zoning.

Completion of I-526 over the islands is essential for safe hurricane evacuation, he said.

"The decision you make on this highway will determine whether people live or die," Riley said.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, father of Elliott Summey, said he was proud of the action that County Council took because it protects the county's good bond rating.

About 200 people attended the meeting. Many were split on the project, which dates to 1972.

"How long are we going to debate this issue? It has to be done," said Rodney Williams of West Ashley. He, too, is concerned about safe evacuation of the islands. "Why wait for a natural disaster?" he said.

Henry Dunbar of West Ashley worries about the effect of the highway construction on marshland nursery grounds for fish and shellfish. "The marshes are the lifeblood of the sea," he said.

"It's a road that is really not needed," he said.

Byron Saunders of Johns Island said council respected the wishes of the people when it voted for the "no-build" option. "Now we are here again considering 526. You are here to represent the people and the people have spoken," he said.

Carol Jacobson of James Island was confused about what the vote meant. "What precisely have you decided about I-526?"

The future of the project will depend on how the negotiations go with the Infrastructure Bank.