WHERE IT STOPS, NOBODY KNOWS
City’s request for I-526 puts the pressure on County Council
By Charlie Morrison
Earlier this month, the City of Charleston fired a shot across the bow of those living throughout the Lowcountry regarding the proposed plan to extend Interstate 526 currently sponsored by County of Charleston. On Nov. 13 City Council overwhelmingly passed a resolution formally requesting the County assign to the City sponsorship of the I-526 project.
The message was clear, should the City gain control of the project, rest assured, the road would be built. “The people in my district are overwhelmingly in favor of completing this thing,” says City Councilman William Moody, who represents a large portion of West Ashley. Dissenting votes cast by City Councilman Blake Hallman and William Dudley Gregorie were all that stood in the way of a unanimous City Council regarding the passage of a resolution formally requesting Charleston County Council bequeath them sponsorship of the project.
The City’s move firmly places I-526 back on County Council’s front burner, with the body set to address and vote on the City’s request at their upcoming Dec. 13 meeting. And while it’s unclear at this time how the members of County Council will cast their respective votes in a couple of weeks, what is clear is that the pressure’s been ratcheted up on each of the nine vote-casting members of Council.
“This is, by far, the most high pressure issue I’ve ever dealt with on County Council,” says County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, who represents a large portion of West Ashley. “And I can tell you my colleagues are being pressured to consider many factors that have nothing to do with the quality or value of this project to the community.
“The pressure being placed on folks from people who would financially benefit from the completion of this project is … is tremendous,” said Condon.
“If you look at the (Charleston Chamber of Commerce’s) priorities list, if you look at the RDA’s (Charleston Regional Development Alliance’s), if you look at CHATS (the Berkeley Charleston Dorchester County Council of Governments’ long-range plan), I-526 is not in the 10 ten priorities for any of them, yet they’re all being pressured by developers and other politicians who are financially motivated by developers to put 526 across Johns Island,” she said.
“The reason we haven’t gotten it done is because it’s been clear all along to previous elected officials as well as to current County Council that this is a horribly divided issue. If there’d been clear public support for it now or in the past, maybe this would be getting done,” continued Condon. “I do not believe that the majority of people I represent who would be affected by I-526 support it. It’s really just that simple.” Regarding her vote on Dec. 13, Condon is equally unequivocal. “It’s really simple … will I give it to Joe Riley? Hell no.”
Condon attributes her frustration over how I-526 is being handled began with the period following Council’s April, 2011 unanimous vote to turn down the latest alternative plan for the project, which is funded by the state’s highway bonding agency, the S.C. State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) managed by the S.C. Department of Transportation (SCDOT) and managed by County Council, instead opting to direct their attorneys to investigate the negotiation of an alternative settlement for the project. That move was perhaps triggered by a SIB letter informing the Council that should they maintain their position on I-526, the County could be on the hook for over $11.6 million in SIB expenditures.
A month later, a group from Council including Condon developed and presented to the SIB an alternate proposal that seeks to address the County’s escalating problem with traffic congestion. The 147-page plan outlines a number of smaller-scale projects County representatives identified as able to help mitigate growing congestion whilst minimizing the impact of major infrastructure on the local environment. The estimated cost of the proposal, at just more than $300 million, the project cost less than half of the current I-526 projected figure.
The SIB later requested that the SCDOT takeover sponsorship of the project it was set to manage, but the organization’s Commission turned them down, stating that they “did not consider (the) project to be of statewide significance.”
Having been altered and adjusted significantly from its original design, SCDOT Alternative G is now estimated to cost more than $607 million, according to revised estimates by the SCDOT.
As per an August internal decision, the SIB has now pledged a total of up to $570 million, however the intergovernmental agreement establishing this deal mandates that any monies promised beyond the original $420 million is promised on a non-binding basis, subject to repeal by a future SIB Board of Directors, and only after 2020, following the completion of projects slated for Florence County estimated to cost up to $90 million.
Any sponsor of the I-526 project, be it the County or the City, could be accountable for not only the additional $37 million of budgetary shortfall currently projected in the Alternative G plan, but moreover, the entirety of monies spent on the project beyond the $420 million deemed by the SIB to be “Approved and Underway,” and thus, unequivocally allocated, could be inherited by the project’s sponsor should a future SIB Board renege on their pledge.
Ultimately the plan proposed by the County was roundly rejected by the SIB’s Board of Directors, who have complete autonomy as to how money allocated to the organization is spent. The move effectively sent County officials back to the drawing board and the project into limbo. “The question is whether they have the political will to choose what the money goes towards,” said Condon.
“I don’t believe the Council members would pass it on to the City from what I can see. This is our deal and we can take care of it ourselves,” said County Councilwoman Anna Johnson, who represents portions of James Island and Johns Island. “As a member of County Council, it is our duty to be looking out for all of Charleston County’s residents, so we need to be doing our own due diligence and managing the project for the benefits of all of our County’s residents.”
County Councilman Joe Qualey, who represents James Island, is less committal on his impending vote. “I have no idea what I am going to do about I-526,” said Qualey. “The reason why is, we asked our folks, our staff and legal staff to come to us in December and give us our options, including their analysis of this $11 million. That was already on the calendar now the City did this, so that adds another layer.”
Charleston County staffers and legal representatives will be presenting their analysis at the Thursday, Dec. 13 at the meeting of the Charleston County Council Finance Committee, at which point the members of Council can ultimately vote on the measure during the Finance Committee meeting.
Of the unanswered questions County Council hopes to address in meetings on Dec. 13 is that of the Council being potentially liable for the $11.6 million the state has already spent on initial research for the project. More importantly, the question of whether or not County Council’s handling of the I-526 issue could affect the municipality’s bond rating.
Condon makes no bones regarding the $11.6 million issue, nor who amongst her colleagues on Council she blames for what she labels, at best, misinformation. “This is the biggest fear factor that Teddie Pryor and Elliott Summey can come come up with … $12 million will have absolutely no effect on our bond rating,” said Condon. “But Teddie (Pryor) and Elliot (Summey), who can’t convince people to support this project based on its merit, are looking to play every fear angle possible.
“We’re going away from ration and reason, and going to these power plays and temptation … but all they’ve done is make me more determined. I am more determined than ever, over the next few weeks before Council has the opportunity to vote to turn it over (to the City), to make sure that people know that there are other choices … this is not ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” said Condon.
The next meeting of Charleston County Council is Thursday, Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. The meeting of the Finance Committee immediately precedes the regular meeting of Council. Charleston County Council quarters are located at the organization’s North Charleston facility, at 4045 Bridge View Dr.