What a few weeks it’s been for poor I-526. Earlier this month it looked like the Charleston beltway would inevitably snake its way from West Ashley to the James Island Connector, but after a series of high powered lawmakers speaking out against the project, and with a little help from state transportation officials postponing an initial vote on the fate of the highway, the Mark Clark Expressway again sits in limbo between the state transportation agency and Charleston County Council.
At its meeting Wednesday, the State Department of Transportation Commission voted unanimously against taking over the project from Charleston County, a move that would have helped the proposal clear a significant hurdle. It’s now up to Charleston to once again assume responsibility for the $558 million project, financed by the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, the independent body charged with financing major building projects such as highways.
Since the Bank’s September 17th decision to approve the final $138 million needed to complete I-526, a parade of legislators, local leaders, and power brokers have weighed in on the project. In an op-ed last week, Gaffney State Sen. Harvey Peeler accused the state of ‘force-feeding asphalt to Charleston,’ and in a letter Tuesday, a cadre of Upstate lawmakers asked to strip all funding for the project, lamenting the disparity of Transportation Infrastructure Bank spending in counties outside of the Charleston area. Republican State House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston, Mayor Joe Riley, Beach Company President John Darby, and Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce Chairman Ronald Jones Jr. also spent time boosting the project in recent weeks.
However, the issue Wednesday was not funding, but rather who would be responsible for seeing the project through to completion. Since the State Infrastructure Bank holds the purse strings to the project, commissioners said they wished the project to move forward under a 2007 intergovernmental agreement, but with the sponsorship of Charleston County instead of the state. Commissioner Craig Forest, who represents the 2nd Congressional District on the panel, told the SC Radio Network “We can’t kill 526, but we can’t take it.” So the proposal returns to Charleston County Council, where it came from earlier this year when council first voted to scrap the project altogether, then voted to rescind that decision to explore options with the state after being stuck with an $11 million tab for throwing out the plans.
Disappointed by the commission’s decision to remand the project, Charleston County Council Vice-Chairman Elliott Summey called the commission’s move “purely political football,” saying the commission “looks like the referees at the end of the Green Bay-Seattle game,” a reference to the contradictory signals given by replacement NFL officials in a recent game. The county’s financial obligations to the Bank along with a recent USC poll showing area residents largely in favor of the project firmed Summey’s commitment to I-526, but he admits he doesn’t love the latest plan, dubbed ‘Alternative G.’ Summey took to Twitter during the meeting, refuting reporters’ accounts of what was decided, reassuring followers that the road was not ill-fated, “The project is not ‘dead’ or ‘nixed'” he broadcasted after the meeting.
Coastal Conservation League Land Use Project Manager Jake Libaire said the decision to reject the project was simply the commission reaffirming its mission that they want to be the manager, not the sponsor, of major road projects like I-526. The Coastal Conservation League and Director Dana Beach have been vocal critics of the project, and Libaire said the League hopes Charleston County once again votes ‘No build’ when it re-considers the project.
Summey and Libaire think the noise from leaders in far corners of the state helped the commission to its decision. “People are getting their heads around” the project, “the lights were turned on the roaches scattered,” Libaire said. He said hearing from leaders like Sen. Peeler and Rep. Ralph Norman (R – York) helped to make the highway a statewide issue. Summey said the lawmakers were politicizing the issue without the facts to back it up, “They’re rubbing feces on their faces and calling it Noxzema.”
For now, the issue sits on Charleston County Council’s desk, “This is a time that Charleston County needs to make a difficult decision,” concluded Transportation Commission Chair Eddie Adams after Wednesday’s meeting.