I-526 resolution still out of reach

Charleston County, SCDOT trade barbs over plan

David Slade

The nearly half-billion-dollar game of cat-and-mouse over plans to extend or complete the Mark Clark Expressway continued last week, with little progress resolving the months-long impasse between Charleston County and the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

At stake in the negotiations is the completion of the expressway, under consideration since the early 1970s, the financial well-being of property owners in the path of the proposed road, and a very, very large amount of taxpayer money.

The impasse began when the county in October expressed reservations about the $489 million plan selected by the state to connect the Mark Clark — Interstate 526 — from its terminus at Savannah Highway in West Ashley to the James Island connector, by way of Johns Island. That controversial plan, which proved unpopular in public meetings, calls for a medium-speed parkway with a bike path, and ground-level connections to existing roads.

County Council asked SCDOT to instead reconsider improving local roads, and also to consider a plan to extend the expressway only to Johns Island, and then widen River Road out toward Kiawah and Seabrook islands. Transportation Secretary Buck Limehouse told the county in November that the only real choice was to complete I-526 as proposed, or start over again, which would put at risk state funds pledged for the project.

Fast-forward to this past week, when Charleston County Administrator Allen O’Neal sent Limehouse a letter saying it’s “unacceptable” that SCDOT refuses to consider other alternatives. O’Neal also defended the county’s proposals.

“The county has contracted with SCDOT to administer the project on the county’s behalf; therefore, we expect the SCDOT to comply with its contractual obligations to the county and take additional steps to review these alternatives,” O’Neal wrote.

Late Friday, Limehouse replied to O’Neal, reiterating that the county’s proposals do not fit the purpose and need of the project, which specifically calls for “completing the state transportation link between the existing terminus of the James Island Connector … and the existing terminus of Interstate 526 at U.S. Highway 17.”

If the road plan doesn’t meet the purpose and need of the project, it’s unlikely to get approved by the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Limehouse said.

He suggested the county find funding to conduct a study of its proposals.

Limehouse also rejected the county’s request that SCDOT acquire properties in hardship cases, where the owners are struggling to pay bills and may be unable to sell their property because of the planned highway. He said that because the county hasn’t endorsed the plan to complete the expressway, SCDOT can’t determine if properties are needed for the project.

Limehouse said the state would acquire property only if the county guaranteed it would reimburse the state if the purchases later proved ineligible for funding from the State Infrastructure Bank.

All of which leaves the project right back where it was in November, when Limehouse first rebuffed the county’s request to consider alternatives.

Limehouse expects to soon be replaced as the secretary of transportation, but a changing of the guard may not resolve the impasse. Gov. Nikki Haley announced on Jan. 14 that she wants retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert St. Onge to head the SCDOT, subject to state Senate confirmation.

“I expect to be replaced next Wednesday, and after that it won’t matter what I think,” Limehouse said. “I believe I have acted in the best interests of Charleston County.”

Here are some key issues:

–There isn’t enough funding identified to pay for the state’s $489 million plan.

–The town of James Island is opposed to that plan, as well, and the town’s approval would be needed.

–Environmental concerns also have been raised, with the National Marine Fisheries Service saying the plan involves “unacceptable adverse impacts to aquatic resources of national importance.”

–Limehouse has repeatedly stated that the alternatives the county has identified for further study don’t meet the stated purpose and need of the project, which would jeopardize approval for the project and funding pledged by the State Infrastructure Bank.

A big question county officials are considering, which has not been answered, is what happens to the pledged State Infrastructure Bank money if the county rejects the state’s chosen plan for the Mark Clark Expressway.

So, where does the county go from here?

“It is clear that very few people believe this is the highest priority project in Charleston County,” Councilwoman Colleen Condon said. “Either improvements in the I-26 Boeing corridor roads, or light rail, would provide so much more value and truly be projects of statewide significance.

“I look forward to an agenda item on council’s next agenda to decide whether to endorse Alternative G or not,” she said, referring to the state’s plan.

Councilman Dickie Schweers, who has opposed the expressway completion plan, said he’s heard virtually no support for either the state’s selected plan or the proposal to extend the highway to Johns Island and widen River Road.

“It’s time for us to select ‘no build’ or at least start eliminating specific options and let this project die a slow death,” he said.

But Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said he doesn’t expect there will be a council vote because council already voted in October on what to do, which was to have the state look into the different alternatives. Pryor said he doesn’t want to argue with Limehouse, but county staff and lawyers believe their position on studying different alternatives is correct.

“If they (SCDOT) won’t carry out our mission, then we can replace them,” Pryor said. “We can’t have this project held up.”

Pryor said the next step for the Mark Clark Expressway will involve seeing what the next secretary of transportation thinks about the issue, and consulting with senators Glenn McConnell and Bobby Harrell, whose appointees control the purse strings of the State Infrastructure Bank.

Post and Courier

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