By Lauren Ratcliffe
Published Dec. 5, 2012
Charleston County Council chambers were filled to the brim Tuesday night with residents wishing to express their opinions regarding the debated and divisive issue of whether to complete the Mark Clark Expressway project.
County Council could vote next week on whether to move forward with the project, give the project to the city of Charleston, or vote no-build and wait to find out the repercussions from the state.
Robin Welch, leader of the grassroots opposition group Nix526, presented her case for why the roadway should not be built. Her presentation included six alternative projects to alleviate traffic congestion and an emotional appeal about the families who would be relocated or live near the proposed path.
“The reason that so many people are worried about this road is because we believe that 526 will deal Johns Island a blow it could not recover from,” Welch said. “We believe our Sea Islands are sacred; they have a culture and a heritage that should be protected.”
The city of Charleston presented data supporting its belief that the roadway should be completed. The city cited improved, albeit imperfect, traffic conditions, already approved funds and a need to plan for future growth in the region.
“The region is growing, and thank god it’s growing,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said. “It’s a growing community and we have the duty to make sure that five years and 25 years down the road the citizens — just as they have a good water supply and good schools — that they have good roads to get them to and from work.”
Riley, again, used a health care analogy comparing the completion of the expressway to a needed heart bypass surgery.
Councilman Dickie Schweers, an opponent to the project, disputed Riley’s analogy saying that a doctor would use the operation as a last resort, especially if other alternatives are available.
“I hope we’re not there,” he said. “I hope we can see some sort of dietary solution.”
Councilman Elliott Summey, an ardent supporter of the project, asked the council where money for any of the other proposed solutions would come from. He said the State Infrastructure Bank had made it clear that Charleston County projects would be at the end of the list if the I-526 funds are given back.
“When it comes to diets, me and my family know a lot about them,” he said. “The only diet solution to traffic would be to put a gate up around 526 and say, ‘No more people allowed in Charleston.’ That’s not going to happen.”
County staff presented a way forward, should council decide to complete the road. Jim Armstrong, assistant county administrator, reminded the council that they are still very early in the process should they decide to move forward.
The county still has to complete the permitting process and revise the intergovernmental agreement to either reflect funding allotments from the infrastructure bank or a restructure of authority, he said.
Because the presentations were made as a part of a finance committee meeting, council members were especially concerned with the threat of default should they vote not to complete the road.
The committee was told by county staff that it is likely the county will refinance some of its bonds by the end of February. Should the county be found in default by the state for not completing the project, it would likely be put on “credit watch” by the rating agencies which would make refinancing more difficult.
County Council will discuss the matter again at its Dec. 13 meeting.