Those bothersome railroad tracks that symbolize traffic jams along Assembly Street won’t be relocated anytime soon with funds from South Carolina’s highway bonding agency.
Instead, the State Infrastructure Bank committed more than $100 million Friday for a freeway project near Charleston that many folks in the Lowcountry don’t want.
The bank’s approval of extra money for the Mark Clark Expressway extension – a decision made just before 5 p.m. – means Columbia’s infrastructure bank application may not be considered for years.
Columbia, which is preparing a more than $100 million application for train track relocation and upgrade of Assembly Street, already faced an uphill battle in getting the Infrastructure Bank’s attention. The Infrastructure Bank, set up to fund road initiatives of statewide significance, approved $420 million for the Charleston freeway about six years ago.
Even before Friday, the bank had no extra bonding capacity for new projects, until some of its debt is paid down. The decision to approve up to $150 million in future money now makes it more difficult for Columbia to obtain funding for local projects.
Supporters say the Mark Clark extension will alleviate traffic congestion in Charleston, but opponents say it will destroy sensitive wetlands and wreck the landscape of major sea islands. Lowcountry residents who oppose the project have signed petitions and turned out in droves at public meetings to voice their opposition.
Friday’s action left Columbia leaders wondering how they will find money to relocate railroad tracks. They said many motorists are frustrated by the hang-ups trains cause at major roads, including Rosewood at Assembly and Assembly near Capital City Stadium.
“We’re aware of what is happening in Charleston and they have needs, but the Midlands sure needs to be considered for funding,” said assistant city manager Teresa Wilson, noting that trains “have become very burdensome to our public at large.”
In the meantime, Columbia is separately pursuing other funds to move the tracks, including federal money, she said. And railroad relocation is listed as a priority in a package of transportation projects going to a public, penny-on-the-dollar sales tax vote in Richland County this fall, she said.
“When people can’t get to school or work because a train blocking three major intersections has rush hour traffic backed up for an hour, I think it’s clear that we have some pressing infrastructure needs,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
Friday’s action by the Infrastructure Bank infuriated conservationists, who accused the Infrastructure Bank of cutting a backroom deal to jumpstart progress on the stalled Lowcountry project.
The state board met at 4:45 p.m. via conference call and approved the Mark Clark funding in less than five minutes. The board had attempted to take a vote Thursday, even though the item was not specifically on its agenda. The board was advised by legal counsel to give 24 hours public notice.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who supports extending the Mark Clark, issued a press release Thursday saying the work had already been approved, even though it had not. Harrell appoints two of the seven bank board members.
“This was such a sham,” said Nancy Cave, an official with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, who attended the Thursday meeting. “It was obvious this had all been worked out before the meeting.”
Sen. Hugh Leatherman and state Transportation Commission Chairman Eddie Adams, both bank board members, said the bank was simply adding funds to the project for the Mark Clark, also known as I-526.
Numerous obstacles for the Mark Clark extension remain, however. The project faces extensive permit challenges from environmentalists. It also may need to be taken over by the state Department of Transportation, which would oversee the work instead of Charleston County, the original project sponsor. The DOT board would likely vote on that this fall, Adams said.
Boosters of extending the Mark Clark say the Holy City needs the road to help alleviate traffic congestion, particularly on Johns and James islands.