A month after state Transportation Board of Commissioners wagging their finger at a proposal that would have had them take on the I-526 extension plan, the fight to ‘finish the damn road’ wears on, and is controversial as ever, if not even more so. Recent weeks have seen county councilmembers clashing with conservationists and a back-and-forth of legal ultimatums, capped off by another few weeks of waiting before anything new is known about which direction the beltway will go.
A little more than a month ago, the highway project appeared to be a lock, but the rejection by the state D.O.T. has sent activists on both sides scrambling to pull the project into their corner. With the threat of an $11.5 million tab from the State Infrastructure Bank hanging over their heads, County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor and Vice-Chairman Elliott Summey continue to stand by the plans. In a 10-page letter to the county administrator, Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Chris DeScherer says the county could not be held liable for the money, and called the refrain from Pryor and Summey a “hollow threat” used by supporters “in an attempt to intimidate the county into keeping the deeply flawed project alive.” In fact, DeScherer says, federal environmental law requires a “no action” option to be considered for projects on the scale of the Mark Clark, so, suggesting that opting for no action would be in violation of the law is false. Even the Post and Courier editorial board chimed in, calling Pryor’s $11.5 million claim a “bludgeon” which shouldn’t represent more than one council member’s voice. Pryor criticized the paper for taking a position and says his critics are trying to distort the truth, “If you tell someone something false over and over, they’ll start to believe it, but facts are facts.”
Doubling-down on the SELC letter, the Coastal Conservation League has set a standing offer to pay for legal counsel if the state should follow through on its pledge to pursue reimbursement of the funds. Pryor rebuffed Conservation League officials present, saying “We don’t need your legal counsel. We have our own legal counsel,” challenging the group to instead set aside $11.5 million of their own money. Pryor said county staff is examining the financial implications of its choices going forward, and hope to have more information at its December 13 meeting. Conservation League Land Use Project Manager Jake Libaire said he finds the chairman’s logic on the project “strange,” criticizing the move to push off a decision on the project another month, “It’s hard to believe that county council hasn’t done their own analysis of the project.” “Our attorneys did their analysis in three days.”
Current plans for the Mark Clark would have the highway continuing from West Ashley over the Stono River, touching down on Johns Island where traffic would slow before once again crossing the Stono to James Island and joining with the Folly Beach Connector. The State Infrastructure Bank has approved $558 million for the project.