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County Council gives thumbs-up to I-526

Dramatic turnaround from unanimous opposition in 2011

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Amid rhetoric about a pact with the devil, Charleston County Council voted 5-4 Thursday night to move forward with permitting, design, financing, and construction of the controversial extension of I-526 across Johns Island and James Island.

As expected, it was a humdinger of a public meeting. Some audience members broke out in spontaneous applause in support of arguments made by council members — causing Chairman Teddie Pryor to bang his gavel for order — and others jeered and whispered and audibly called "bullshit" during the council debate.

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Last week, Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. made a presentation to County Council requesting that the City of Charleston be allowed to take control of the beleaguered infrastructure project. But rather than take a vote on whether to hand the project over to the city, County Council adopted a new resolution (PDF) written by Vice Chairman Elliott Summey that says the county will endorse the "Alternative G" route proposed by the S.C. Department of Transportation, with some modifications:

• There will be a grade-separated interchange where I-526 will eventually cross Folly Road near the southwestern end of the James Island Connector, including an overpass at nearby Up on the Hill Road.

• An overpass will be built at East Shore Lane in West Ashley, just past the current western terminus of I-526.

• The mainline of the I-526 extension will have a 45 mph speed limit, slightly faster than the 35 mph limit proposed in earlier plans.

By moving forward with the highway extension, the county is locking in the $558 million that the State Infrastructure Bank pledged to the project in August, money that would go to projects elsewhere in the state if the I-526 project were called off.

During a break in the four-hour meeting, Mayor Riley said he was "proud" of County Council and said, "I think we helped bring it to a head" by asking to take over the project. He and City Councilman Aubry Alexander said they were pleased to see the project get approved, regardless of which governing body was in charge.

The swing vote in the 5-4 decision came from Councilwoman Anna Johnson, who represents Johns, James, Seabrook, Kiawah, and Wadmalaw Islands. Johnson ran for council in 2010 on a platform that included opposing the I-526 plan, but Thursday night, she changed course and voted for Summey's resolution. Before she would vote to approve it, though, she added several amendments, including elimination of the at-grade intersection with Riley Road and a requirement that county staff "make good faith efforts to evaluate and consider claims made by residents for compensation due to the impact of [I-526] on their property."

During the public-comment session midway through the meeting, Nix 526 leader Robin Welch took Johnson to task, reciting quotes from various newspaper articles where Johnson had said she would fight I-526. One James Island resident said, "Ms. Johnson, you know I campaigned really hard for you when you ran. You have not kept your promise."

Johnson spoke up partway through the public comment session to defend herself: "I didn't make a pact with the devil. I didn't make a pact with anybody." She said she had received threatening phone calls and e-mails telling her to oppose I-526, but she was not intimidated. "I'm here to look at the entire county — not just your house, not just your yard, not just your tree," Johnson said.

Johnson had a change of opinion about I-526, but so did all of the other yeasayers except for Herb Sass, who wasn't on County Council when the body voted 8-0 in April 2011 to reject Alternative G. Summey acknowledged the change of opinion during the meeting. "All of us voted against Alternative G," Summey said. "This is compromise."

Nay voters and Nixers in the crowd questioned the motives of the five councilmembers who voted for the measure: Johnson, Summey, Pryor, Sass, and Vic Rawl. Making a verbal jab at Sass during his speech, Nay-voter Dickie Schweers said, "Councilman Sass, as an appraiser, I don't doubt you're under tremendous pressure to pass this thing, because a lot of real estate folks are going to make some money off this thing."

"The thing is," Schweers added, "there's no debate that if this passes, Johns Island will probably end up looking much like James Island."

Rawl returned fire next, accusing Schweers of giving residents misinformation and saying that Nixers had a "not in my backyard" attitude. He also pointed out that the James Island Connector faced similar opposition on County Council, but no current councilmember was likely to tout his or her stance against it today.

Summey accused Nay-voter Colleen Condon of telling frustrated community members to take matters into their own hands by suing the county. And Summey spoke to defend himself against accusations that he stood to profit from the I-526 extension. "I am a commercial real estate developer. I am not the devil," Summey said. "I don't own any property on Johns Island, and I'm not profiting from this in any way."

Is I-526 Worth It?

According to survey results released by the SCDOT in September, 72.2 percent of respondents in Charleston-area ZIP codes west of the Ashley River favored the extension, although the project found less favor on James Island (62.8 percent approval rating), where much of the construction would take place. Critics of the I-526 plan said the new highway would damage wetlands, hurt property values, encourage further expansion of suburban sprawl, ruin the rural character of Johns Island, and do little to solve current traffic problems.

Some argued the SIB money could be better spent elsewhere. In a prioritized ranking (PDF, page 4) of potential transportation projects released by the Berkeley Charleston Dorchester Council of Governments in December 2011, extension of I-526 was ranked at No. 15, behind capacity improvements on Folly Road, Main Road, and St. Andrews Boulevard. No. 1 on the list was a capacity improvement on North Main Street in Summerville, and No. 2 was an improvement of the I-526/I-26 interchange.

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