Paradigm Shift in Charleston: County Leaders Reject Highway Expansion

Paradigm Shift in Charleston: County Leaders Reject Highway Expansion

by Angie Schmitt on April 18, 2011

Chalk this up as a major victory in the livable streets movement: Thanks to a heroic effort by advocates for smart growth and rural preservation, officials in Charleston, South Carolina have unanimously rejected a plan for a half-billion-dollar highway expansion.

In an 8-0 decision late last week, Charleston County officials voted against an eight-mile bypass plan that was sure to induce sprawl and promote car-dependence. (Streetsblog covered the proposed Mark Clark Expressway, a plan to extend I-526, in a series of stories this February.)

Local media sources have reported that it might be possible for the state to continue the project without the county’s permission, under the terms of the contract between SCDOT and Charleston County. And it’s still not clear if the county will be forced to reimburse the state for the $12 million already spent on planning.

Advocates for a more livable Charleston still have a huge reason to celebrate. Josh Martin of the Coastal Conservation League called the decision “a truly amazing testament to the power of community organizing and smart growth advocacy.”

The League has been working for six years to educate the public about the negative environmental, social and financial impacts of the project. The group even developed an alternative plan to expand and redesign several intersections and corridors in lieu of the highway project.

“It’s been a long road but it’s well worth the wait,” said Martin, who added that the decision represents a “paradigm shift” in transportation planning.

County Council members didn’t just reject SCDOT’s “preferred alternative,” the eight-mile, at-grade highway plan. Perhaps more encouraging, said Martin, they went further, voting 5-3 against building a highway in any form. Given that position, Martin is confident the highway plan is off the table.

John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, praised Charleston County leaders for their foresight.

“Local officials weren’t intimidated by the SCDOT and did what they thought was best for their community,” he said. “Extending I-526 to the seashore made no sense from a traffic standpoint, especially if it was intended for hurricane evacuation. When Rita hit Houston, its freeways concentrated traffic into a blockade of stalled vehicles. An enhanced network of smaller scale streets and roads would better improve traffic distribution and provide more reliable commuter and evacuation routes.”

When the Coastal Conservation League began its campaign, the group looked across the country for examples of  proposed highway projects that were overturned by a public action in recent years. But the last round of successful attempts to stop freeway construction happened a generation ago.

“Now we can become a case study,” said Martin.
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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.
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Infrastructure Bank Draws Fire As Political Arm

Infrastructure Bank Draws Fire As Political Arm


Eric K. Ward
The Nerve
READ BIOGRAPHY
Written By: Eric K. Ward
The Nerve
Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The director of South Carolina’s leading environmental group says a controversial road-building project in Charleston serves as a poster child for how the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank suffers from legislative cronyism.
And, in a perhaps surprising twist, the self-described father of the Infrastructure Bank acknowledges that it is influenced by politics
.
Created under state law in 19
97, the Transportation Infrastructure Bank is a stand-alone state entity that helps finance major highways projects. But, it is not an agency per se and operates with little to no staff.
Rather, the Infrastructure Bank is a funding body that works closely with the S.C. Department of Transportation in partnering with local governments to put together deals to pay for large road construction improvements. A seven-member board oversees the bank.
The governor appoints the board chairman and one other member of the panel. The two most powerful members of the General Assembly – the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore – also appoint two members each, including one lawmaker from each of their respective chambers.
Thus, in practical terms, the Legislature controls the board in appointing four of its seven members, two of whom are lawmakers.
The chairman of the state Department of Transportation Commission, which governs the DOT, serves as the seventh member of the Infrastructure Bank board.
The bank draws on funding from several sources, including state gasoline tax revenue, state motor vehicle registration fees, contributions from private parties and matching money from local governments.
The Infrastructure Bank also issues bonds and generates a huge portion of its funding through that process.
On Tuesday night, Charleston County Council cast a final decisive vote against the controversial project in the port city, a proposed extension of Interstate 526. Continue reading

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State won’t push I-526 on its own

State won’t push I-526 on its own
DOT will honor county objection, spokesman says

BY
DAVID SLADE
dslade@postandcourier.com
Saturday, April 16, 2011

Alan Hawes // The Post and Courier

The proposed extension of I-526 would run from U.S. Highway 17 in West Ashley, across the Stono River to Johns Island and James Island, where it ties in to the James Island connector at Folly Road (pictured above).

If Charleston County says it doesn’t want Interstate 526 to be completed, the S.C. Department of Transportation apparently won’t press ahead over the county’s objections.

Some county officials had warned Thursday, while voting on the fate of the highway plan, that if the county tried to unilaterally block the road work, the state could proceed anyway, and then send the county a large bill.

County Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey told members of council and a large audience that “the state could continue to build the road without our consent, and Charleston County taxpayers could be on the hook.”

The Transportation Department seems to have now ruled out that possibility.
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Editorial: Public debate, council vote required on I-526 proposal

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. Continue reading

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I-526 debate coming to a head

The wrangling over plans to complete Interstate 526 could come to a head next week when Charleston County Council is expected to make a decision about the way forward after a months-long impasse.

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Help work toward better transportation in the lowcountry!

In April, County Council rejected the I-526 extension:

6-0 with a vote against alternative G. (SCDOT’s preferred alternative)

5-3 for ‘no build’ with a request that the funds be used to improve existing roads, not build more highways.

Next,  the SIB board has asked the County to reimburse the state for the money spent thus far.  We believe the County operated within their right and chose the ‘no build’ option.  This has always been a choice that they could have made and they should not be punished for following the process and choosing this option.

County Council rescinded their no-build vote to avoid rumored default with the SIB and the project has not been discussed in public since.  The SIB’s failure to recognize the County’s opposition to the project is a statewide issue: our transportation infrastructure bank was created to fund projects of statewide significance across the state.  I-526 does not solve traffic problems, doe not yet have its permits (in fact 4 regulatory agencies recommended denying the permits), is met with local opposition and is at least $70 million dollars over budget.  Charleston County taxpayers would be responsible for this overrun.  Yet, the SIB continues to pledge money to this project!

Contact the SIB and state elected officials today and tell them that you are opposed to the I-526 extension.  You count on them for leadership and expect them to focus on statewide priorities and not political projects.

Contact County Council and tell them you support their opposition to the project and encourage them to remain opposed to this harmful, expensive and ineffective road project.  There are better ways to spend our time and money.

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Letter to the editor: No to I-526

‘No’ on I-526

The Town of Kiawah Island, the Kiawah Island Community Association and Kiawah developers and business interests, which are generally all one and the same on this topic, want their roads — I-526 and now a connecting tollway scheme across Johns Island — built no matter what the affected residents say.

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Commentary: Solution for Septima Clark Parkway is long overdue

No resident of, or visitor to, our fine city who has traversed the Septima Clark Parkway during a period of high tides and heavy rains will ever forget the experience. Flooding along the roadway is severe, putting motorists at serious risk and depriving home and business owners, churches and schools in the area the use of their property.

In the last 15 years the Charleston area has seen great progress in building and upgrading our roads and infrastructure in an effort to keep up with explosive growth across the region.

The Mark Clark Expressway was built, a new and beautiful bridge now links the peninsula with Mount Pleasant.

Yet still, a simple rainstorm makes one of our city’s most critical arteries impassable. Continue reading

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Letter to the editor: pros and cons

Pros and cons

The letter in the March 6 Post and Courier by the mayor of Kiawah Island cannot go unanswered. Although “the Kiawah Island Town Council has adopted a resolution expressing support” for the extension of I-526, other elected bodies have passed resolutions expressing strong, unequivocal opposition. Continue reading

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