The South Carolina Department of Transportation Commission unanimously decided Wednesday to not take control of a controversial project in Charleston.
City officials and Charleston legislators have long pushed for the completion of Interstate 526, known as the Mark Clark Expressway, to prevent further congestion in the heavily traveled area. However, conservation groups worry it will damage the light suburban character of Johns Island’s and James Island’s marshes. Charleston County has received over $558 million for I-526, but a majority of county council members have made it clear they do not want responsibility for the project.
However, the state Infrastructure Bank has said the county will have to repay nearly $12 million already spent if it does not finish the interstate.
At issue Wednesday was whether the state would instead take over responsibility for the project from Charleston County. However, the issue is complicated. Because I-526 was sponsored by Charleston County and the South Carolina Transportation Infrastructure Bank, it fell outside a state law that requires state transportation projects to be funded based on a priority ranking system (SCDOT does not consider I-526 a priority). Several commissioners were concerned that taking control would give the appearance of subverting the rankings.
“It was not our project and it was not in the best interests of South Carolina,” Commission chairman Eddie Adams said after the meeting. He added, however, that SCDOT would honor a previous agreement to manage I-526’s construction should Charleston County approve it.
“This is a time that Charleston County needs to make a difficult decision,” he said.
Commissioners overwhelmingly said they did not want to terminate I-526, leaving up to county leaders to decide. They said they felt it was not the state’s responsibility to make that call. Craig Forrest identified the dilemma; “We can’t kill 526, but we can’t take it.”
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley made a last-minute plea, comparing the construction of Interstate 526 to a coronary bypass. “Our road arteries are overloaded and overworked,” he told the commissioners. Riley warned that doing nothing would lead to a figurative “heart attack” once development reached Johns Island.
But state legislator Ralph Norman (R-York) spoke against the project. Norman complained that I-526 is not listed as a state priority, yet is getting $558 billion from the Infrastructure Bank. He also argued that the Lowcountry has received a disproportionate share of the bank’s funds since 1997.
Riley said afterwards that he was not surprised by the commission’s decision and that the project’s future will now be decided by Charleston County Council. “We need it. If it’s not built now, it will never be built,” he said.
The most outspoken proponent of the bypass, House Speaker Bobby Harrell (R-Charleston) was not at Wednesday’s commission meeting.
Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Berkeley), chair of the state Senate Transportation Committee said afterwards that the commission made a “wise” decision. He had previously criticized the commission last year for not following the state’s priority list when it approved some funding for the proposed Interstate 73.