The I-526 project: Behind-the-scenes talks as murky as future of extension
BY PRENTISS FINDLAY
Monday, July 4, 2011
The future of Interstate 526 on James and Johns islands is as clear as pluff mud as supporters and opponents continue to battle over the decades-old project.
After five public hearings and a voluminous environmental study, the issue remains whether to construct the $489 million, seven-mile highway.
The S.C. Department of Transportation recommended a low-speed parkway, which Charleston County Council unanimously rejected. That led to the State Infrastructure Bank knocking on the county’s door for the return of $11 million spent on the road so far. In response, council repealed its ‘no-build’ decision in a 5-4 vote.
Photo by Wade Spees
‘We’re standing in the westbound lane of the interstate right here,’ said Derek Wade on Up on the Hill Road that leads to his James Island home and business. ‘This is the road we won’t be able to use anymore if they build this thing.’
‘Right now, we’re at a weird standstill,’ County Councilwoman Colleen Condon said.
Behind the scenes, the county, the SCDOT and the bank are in negotiations over what will happen next with I-526. So far, public details about the talks have been sketchy. The situation was discussed Thursday night behind closed doors in a council executive session.
Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey said the county wants a contract with the bank and SCDOT
that gives the county more latitude in deciding what type of road gets built. He described the situation as council having great responsibility but little authority when it comes to the completion of I-526.
‘Everybody has put the issues on the table,’
Summey said. ‘We’re a little further down the road, but not much further.’
The situation is the latest chapter in the 39-year history of the long-envisioned completion of I-526 on the islands. The road would link I-526 at Savannah Highway with the James Island connector at Folly Road.
Derek Wade, 56, recalled first hearing the debate about I-526 when he was in high school. He wishes the project would die once and for all because he sees it as a threat to his slice of heaven on James Island at Ellis Creek.
‘How many stakes do you have to drive through the heart of this
son of a gun?’ he said.
For 20 years, Wade has lived, worked and played on 10 acres where lush forest and salt marsh create a pastoral picture. Along the way, he built a landscaping business and raised a family. All the while, though, the threat of the expressway was there, unresolved.
‘I don’t want the highway to come through here, for obvious reasons,’ he said.
Wade’s frustration with the situation was evident as he pointed to two acres of woodlands he fears would be lost to the highway. Equally important to him was the prospect of harm to the character of the waterfront land he calls home.
The low-speed parkway plan: Charleston County Council has rejected the S.C. Department of Transportation’s preferred alternative — a low-speed parkway — for Interstate 526 on James and Johns islands. That has led to new negotiations between the county, the SCDOT and the State Infrastructure Bank for an agreement that would give County Council more latitude in determining the future of I-526. Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said an expressway would be a better plan than a low-speed parkway.
‘This will destroy the value of waterfront property,’ he said. ‘I got a feeling the political powers are going to push on this thing.’
He worries an expressway will dump grit, dirt and oil into Ellis Creek, a tidal tributary of Charleston Harbor where he likes to swim. It makes more sense to him to improve existing roads on the islands so they can better handle traffic rather than completing the interstate.
‘There are better ways to do it,’ he said. ‘I’d really like this thing not to happen.’
On Seabrook and Kiawah islands, the sentiment is different. Both town councils recently passed resolutions calling for the completion of any version of I-526 with an interchange on Johns Island. They also support a cross-island road that would link I-526 on the islands with Betsy Kerrison Parkway, which goes to Kiawah and Seabrook.
Seabrook Mayor Bill Holtz said the roads on Johns Island are scenic but dangerous, so much so that I-526 is urgently needed.
‘It’s the future,’ Holtz said.
At five SCDOT-sponsored public hearings last fall, opponents outnumbered supporters by a wide margin, but those in favor of I-526 say they are the ‘silent majority.’
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is a strong supporter of the interstate across the islands, which also has the backing of North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey. Riley has said that the project is vital for hurricane evacuation and relief of traffic congestion west of the Ashley.
‘There is opposition and there will always be opposition to a major road project,’ Holtz said.
He said developments already approved for Johns Island by the county and the city will more than double the population.
‘We need a plan now,’ he said.
The SCDOT, which manages the project for the county, said 62 percent of 1,657 people who spoke at public hearings or submitted written comments opposed I-526.
Holtz, 78, cited a town- sponsored survey of more than 1,000 people as evidence of support for the new road. In that poll, more than 80 percent said they wanted I-526.
‘I wish they could take a vote of everybody involved. The silent majority would come out at that time,’ Holtz said.
The SCDOT selected ‘Alternative G’ for I-526, a landscaped, low-speed parkway with stoplights and two links to River Road on either side of Maybank Highway.
County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said he favors a faster-paced freeway over a low-speed parkway. He said a freeway with fewer exits is a better way to control growth.
‘People voted for this back in the 1970s. This thing has been going on for 39 years. The road will be built. We’re just bringing it to completion,’ he said.
Photo by Grace Beahm
Mayor Bill Holtz of Seabrook Island cited a town-sponsored survey of more than 1,000 people as evidence of support for the new road. In that poll, more than 80 percent said they wanted I-526 completed.
Development is coming to rural Johns Island with or without the new highway. The best way to preserve the island is through zoning and limited access, he said.
County Council submitted an alternative proposal to the State Infrastructure Bank that included $64 million for widening Main Road from Bees Ferry Road to Maybank Highway and $6.2 million for passing lanes on Bohicket Road. The bank board rejected that proposal and declared the county in default on the loan for I-526. That prompted the 5-4 vote by council to rescind its ‘no-build’ vote for Alternative G.
Condon, who opposes the completion of I-526, said the project is not in the best interest of Johns and James islands. A majority of island residents don’t want the highway, she said.
The SCDOT-recommended parkway has a price tag of $489 million, of which the State Infrastructure Bank has committed $420 million. The county is responsible for the $69 million balance, which would require a property or sales tax hike, she said.
She favors the alternative proposal that includes widening Main Road and creating passing lanes on Bohicket Road because it is far cheaper and provides a lot of benefit.
The bank has allotted $99 million of the $420 million for the parkway. The rest of the funds would not be available for another six years. Building a high-speed expressway instead of a low-speed parkway would cost between $600 million and $700 million, she said.
Condon pointed to commercial development on Long Point Road in Mount Pleasant that happened because of I-526. ‘Is that a positive or a negative?’ she said.
She rejected the argument that development will come to Johns Island with or without the parkway. ‘People aren’t clamoring to build,’ she said.
People from James and Johns islands packed James Island Town Hall recently to voice their opposition to I-526. They worried that a new Town Council would reverse the previous council’s opposition to the project. That didn’t happen, but shortly afterward the state Supreme Court dissolved the town in the latest twist to its continuing battle with the city of Charleston over whether the town of James Island was legally incorporated.
The town’s opposition to I-526 mattered legally because a favorable vote was required for the parkway to cross town limits.
‘The town legally has been dissolved but the constituents haven’t gone anywhere,’ said Kate Parks, who attended the James Island hearing to represent the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.
She said funds for the completion of I-526 would be better spent on improvements to Interstate 26. ‘We’re hopeful that a no-build decision can be reached on I-526,’ Parks said.
The SCDOT recommended that the county build the so-called ‘Alternative G’ in part because it has the lowest cost to taxpayers and lowest number of residents who would have to be relocated (26). It also has the lowest number of hazardous waste sites (eight), according to the agency environmental impact statement.
Pryor said County Council will reconsider I-526 in the fall.
Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.