Enlivened meeting leaves County Council to weigh pros, cons of controversial extension
By Charlie Morrison
The curtain was raised on the drama that is Lowcountry politics last Tuesday evening, when Charleston County Council welcomed a host of area residents, municipal leaders, and activist groups for a meeting of the body’s Finance Committee, during which the hottest of topics was addressed, that of the proposed extension of the Interstate 526 Mark Clark Expressway.
Necessitated by the passage of a City referendum officially requesting the County transfer to the City sponsorship of the road project, the purpose of the meeting was further educating County Council in anticipation of their upcoming, December 18 vote on the City’s request. In that vein, the body invited the major players on each side of the issue to present their respective cases for or against the City taking over the project. It was an evening filled with high drama, emotion, reason and the lack thereof. A number of questions were answered at the County meeting, but others still remain, including whether or not alterations to the plan are even on the table for discussion at the SIB.
The evening began with a hiccup, as Council Chairman Teddie Pryor announced to the room that the first speaker of the evening, S.C. State House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston), had been forced to cancel. Council later received a fax from the Speaker outlining the views he was to present at Council, but not before each of the three other presenters took their respective turns at the microphone.
Former James Island Town Council member Robin Welch, co-founder of project opposition group ‘Nix 526’ was bumped to the front of the queue in Harrell’s absence. Her address was emotional, as is the issue for Welch and the constituency she represents.
A visibly emotional Welch began the series of presentations by briefly thanking Council, before turning her attention immediately back to the matter at hand. “First off, thank you for giving us a seat at the table and a voice in this conversation,” began Welch, her voice trembling at the gravity of the moment. “Please hear me on this, no one, not me, not anyone in this room is truly advocating for ‘no build, no progress, no improvement,’” she said. “What we are advocating for, what we believe is possible, is ‘better build.’”
Welch proceeded to present the plan Nix 526 members had labeled the “Better Build Compromise,” the core of which involves completing small-scale improvements to roughly a half-dozen problem intersections. Specifics of the plan included addressing the troublesome intersections of Savannah Highway and Main Road, Highway 61, and Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. and that of I-526 and the Glenn McConnell Parkway, among others.
The plan resembles those put forth by both the Coastal Conservation League and the County itself, which presented an alternative to the extension of the Mark Clark that featured a number of small-scale projects designed to streamline problem intersections. That proposal was roundly rejected by the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB), the financial backer of the project.
The County next approached the S.C. Department of Transportation (SCDOT), who also rejected the project for not being within the scope of their organization.
“This is a regional transportation project, it’s designed to address traffic in James Island, West Ashley, and Johns Island,” said locally-based SCDOT project manager David Kinard later in the evening. “The projects referenced by Ms. Welch, it did not appear that those improvements together was a regional solution and thus were not looked at.”
It was Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. to next address the Council following Welch and Nix 526 resting their case, for the time being. Riley’s tone was conciliatory, with the Mayor offering assurances that the County would remain involved in the process as a partner to the City. Gesturing throughout, the Mayor delivered both the City’s case for the project as well as its case for sponsoring it.
The assumption that the SIB would or even could allow the plan to be amended remains unanswered, but for Councilman Elliot Summey, assuming SIB could be flexible regarding the plan without sending the County to the back of the funding line is a mistake.
“Where’s the money going to come from to do the other proposed fixes? Where is going to come from?,” began a measured Summey. “I haven’t heard anyone tonight say where it’s going to come from. All I’ve heard is ‘hey, can we go ask the SIB again for more money?’”
According to SIB board member and S.C. House District 110 representative Chip Limehouse, the SIB is flexible, and could work with the County on reworking the current choice for the roadway, Alternative G, into something more palatable for all involved. In making his point, Limehouse cited projects here in Charleston and in York County as examples of the body’s flexibility. County Councilman Elliot Summey, for his part, wasn’t buying it.
“There is no dietary solution to this, it doesn’t exist. Telling these folks that they’re going to get the other traffic solutions is disingenuous. They’re not going to get them because they’re no money to fund them,” said Summey. “Let’s be honest, if we’re going to talk about real solutions, let’s not sell these folks a bill of goods and tell them if we do ‘no build’ we’re going to give them something else because unless Charleston County is willing to pay for it itself, it’s not going to happen.”
The third and final presentation of the evening, that of the County staff, offered Summey and the rest of Council some answer to the lingering questions hanging over the project. County Administrator Kurt Taylor and Transportation Development Director Jim Armstrong addressed the ‘what ifs’ of the situation, and presented to Council answers on how it would potentially drum up additional funds to either complete the project or pay back the State, should the SIB rule that the County once again defaulted on the Intergovernmental Agreement between the agencies.
The question of whether or not five of the nine members of Council would vote to pass the project to the City of Charleston remains to be seen. If members of County Council were in fact swayed one way or the other by last Tuesday’s presentations, we won’t know until Thursday, when the issue will ultimately be voted upon.
Charleston County Council will again address the I-526 issue at their next regular meeting, Thursday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m. County Council quarters are located at the County’s North Charleston headquarters, located at 4045 Bridge View Dr. in North Charleston. You can watch the three presentations from last Tuesday’s meeting, see the County’s website at www.charlestoncounty.org/departments/Council/index.htm