Despite possible loss of $12M, council firm in rejecting I-526 extension

Despite possible loss of $12M, council firm in rejecting I-526 extension
BY
DIANE KNICH
dknich@postandcourier.com ywenger@postandcourier.com
Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Alan Hawes // The Post and Courier

Charleston County Council will continue to stand firm against completing Interstate 526, despite a warning that the move would cost the cash-strapped county $12 million.

The State Infrastructure Bank warned County Council members in a letter this week that if the Mark Clark Expressway extension from its current ending point in West Ashley isn’t extended to Johns and James islands, the county would have to pay back what has been spent on the project so far for right-of-way issues and engineering and environmental studies.

The letter followed a council committee’s decision Thursday to nix the controversial plan to complete the highway and negotiate a “no build” decision with the state.

At a meeting Tuesday night, Councilman Dickie Schweers made a motion that the council vote to reject the S.C. Department of Transportation’s preferred “Alternative G,” which passed with six votes. Councilmen Elliott Summey and Vic Rawl abstained.

Schweers then made a second motion that council request that the money for the extension be used instead to improve existing roads in the county.

The Infrastructure Bank pledged $420 million for I-526, but the project has an estimated cost of $489 million. The lack of full funding is among the county’s objections to the plan.

If Schweers’ proposal was rejected, the county would then go with the “no-build” option. That motion passed with a 5-3 vote. Councilmen Teddie Pryor, Summey and Rawl were opposed.

Council members pushing not to build the road said they were doing so because that’s what their constituents want.

County residents who supported and were opposed to the I-526 extension nearly filled County Council Chambers. Those who opposed the road were concerned about increased traffic and development as well as quality-of-life issues. Those who favored spoke mostly about safety.

Summey, who voted against Schweers’ motion, said, “This is crazy. This is reckless and appalling.”

Summey, Pryor and Rawl wanted to continue negotiating with SCDOT and the State Infrastructure Bank in hopes of amending the 2007 contract for the project that they said didn’t favor the county.

Summey put forth a motion to continue negotiation, but it failed 5-3. The same members who opposed Schweers’ motion favored Summey’s motion.

Summey said that before voting for the no-build option, which would almost certainly cost the county $12 million, County Council should at least attempt to renegotiate.

The county attorney warned council members last week that the contract with the state does not allow the county to just quit the project.

Councilwoman Colleen Condon said after the meeting that she hopes Tuesday’s vote will push the State Infrastructure Bank to reconsider its warning. People simply don’t want the road, she said.

Rawl said he voted to continue negotiating because “I’m not willing to gamble with $12 million.”

SCDOT has maintained that to reach the project goals, I-526 must be extended from West Ashley to Johns and James islands, linking the existing highway to the James Island connector.

The community has fought back against that plan and other alternatives.

And Infrastructure Bank members are worried that if the county doesn’t move forward with the project, the outstanding debt will hurt its ability to lend money, a heavy concern considering the bank funds major road construction across South Carolina.

To collect the $12 million, the Infrastructure Bank could intercept the money that flows from the state to the county, known as Aid to Subdivisions. It is not clear how such action would impact the county.

Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican and a member of the Infrastructure Bank board, said the letter to the county was not an official action of the bank board.

Rather, he said, the advisory letter spells out the action the board would take if the state can’t collect the money. Limehouse said he believes the board may be agreeable to talks with the county.

“I think all the options are on the table, and I can’t say what’s going to happen until the county takes its vote,” Limehouse said.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491. Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855.

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