Although the city of Charleston has taken the lead in advocating plans to extend I-526 across Johns and James islands, County Council actually made the request for the project to the State Infrastructure Bank. As the applicant, County Council has the duty to make the call on whether to proceed with the controversial project. That doesn’t mean punting it to the state Department of Transportation.
Some County Council members want to take a vote on the controversial project. Councilman Dickie Schweers, for example, says he wants to go on record opposing it. It’s hard to see how council could decide otherwise, given the overwhelming public opposition to the project seen in five public hearings last year.
“If we don’t want it built, why would we pass it off to the SCDOT?” Mr. Schweers questioned. “They’re in the road-building business.”
That doesn’t mean that County Council should simply vote down I-526 and cheerfully forego funding for the project. There is a strong case to be made for other infrastructure improvements that have more public support.
Council member Colleen Condon cites needed road improvements around the Boeing plant, now under construction; commuter rail service; and improvements to Main Road on Johns Island, Folly Road on James Island, and the existing I-526 roadway between U.S. 17 and I-26.
Drainage improvements to the Crosstown on peninsula Charleston also are long overdue.
“I am very aware that we don’t have the authority to transfer the money to other projects,” Ms. Condon says. “What we can do is ask.”
“There’s nothing to prohibit the Infrastructure Bank from doing it,” she added, noting that four of the seven members of the SIB Board are appointees of House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, both of Charleston.
Council should be willing to debate the $489 million project in public session. Local residents turned out by the hundreds to address the expressway extension in public hearings, and council should do them the courtesy of explaining its views on the matter in open session.
And taking a vote.
It is evident that council’s alternative proposal, to provide an expressway extension just to Johns Island isn’t going anywhere. The DOT already has told county officials as much.
That leaves the highly unpopular proposal for a 45 mph divided highway built to interstate standards with added at-grade intersections on both Johns and James islands. The plan, endorsed by the city of Charleston, was derived from DOT’s interpretation of what the public wanted, based on meetings in 2008. Clearly, DOT missed the mark.
The extension has been generally derided as a plan that would open both islands to more development — an outcome strongly opposed by residents who have seen enough.
Supporting this proposal would be a travesty. County Council should have the backbone to undertake efforts for transportation improvements with greater public input.