Charleston County: No plans to reapply for I-526 funding

by Liz Segrist

If the Interstate 526 project had received the necessary support to move forward, it would have been extended from West Ashley to Johns and James islands. (Photo/File)

If the Interstate 526 project had received the necessary support to move forward, it would have been extended from West Ashley to Johns and James islands. (Photo/File)

Charleston County can choose to reapply for funding for the Interstate 526 project after the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank stripped away the $420 million set aside for it last month.

But Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey said last week that the county has no plans “to apply for funds that are already allocated to us” and that the county already spent $117 million on road work in preparation of the I-526 extension.

“We believe those funds are still ours,” Summey said. “We have a contract in which we lived up to our end and satisfied our conditions in the contract.  Therefore, we think the contract is still valid. If it has been broken, it’s been broken by them, and it will be a process in which we figure out how they cure their default.”

The infrastructure bank board voted 4-1 against the extension plan during a meeting last month in Columbia. That decision effectively killed the highly controversial plan, which would have extended the interstate from West Ashley through Johns Island and onto James Island.

The money previously set aside for the project has reverted to the bank’s general fund. Board members said the money was wasting away for more than a decade as other projects went unfunded.

Mike Wooten, an infrastructure bank board member who voted against the project, said the county should re-evaluate and seek funding for a revised plan.

“The project has changed. The time that has elapsed was the worst enemy of this project,” said Wooten, also the president of Myrtle Beach-based DDC Engineers. “It’s not over, but this chapter is over.”

The extension would have connected West Ashley with the islands by linking the current end of 526 at Savannah Highway to the James Island Connector at Folly Road. The I-526 project was spearheaded by an intergovernmental agreement among the infrastructure bank, Charleston County and the S.C. Transportation Department. The plans were long delayed amid growing costs and controversy.

The infrastructure bank had set aside $420 million for the project; the most recent estimate put the total cost at $725 million. The bank gave the county a March 30 deadline to deliver a detailed outline for how it would come up with $300 million to finish paying for the project.

Board members said the county failed to meet that deadline. Wooten said the board’s main concern stemmed from the $300 million project price increase, as well as the set-aside money being tied up.

“We had taken $420 million out of circulation for more than 10 years,” Wooten said. “We could have spent that and paid part of it back by now.”

Summey said the allocated funds cannot contractually be retracted by the bank.

“The bank has gone into default of the contract. The bottom line is: What happens to the $420 million that were obligated to us, and what happens to the $117 million that we spent that was required of us by law in the contract?” Summey said. “That right now is the No.1 concern for me: securing our legal footing. We’re not reapplying for anything. They can ask us, but in my mind, the terms of the contract dictate what the steps are going forward.”

Funding woes, traffic congestion and toll roads

As the Charleston region grows and traffic becomes more congested, advocates have pushed for the interstate extension as a solution to long commutes on smaller roads in West Ashley, James Island and Johns Island.

“We are now left without an option to ease congestion, increase mobility and address safety issues, such as hurricane evacuation routes, in this part of our region,” the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce said in a statement after the infrastructure bank board vote.

Others have strongly opposed the project, saying it would not save a significant amount of time, would hurt neighborhoods and the environment and would change the face of the more rural islands. A group called Nix 526 was one of the more vocal opponents in recent years.

During the infrastructure board meeting last month, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg petitioned for a one-year extension to study whether a toll road on I-526 would help pay for the funding shortfall. The board voted 3-2 against that plan. Tecklenburg did not return requests for comment.

Wooten said he supported Tecklenburg’s plan for a toll road, noting that the funding it would have collected could have made up the financing gap; but Wooten said he voted down the overall project because the new toll plan would require more extensive planning and studies — all of which would take years and cost millions of dollars.

That would likely mean the $420 million set-aside would lie dormant for another decade before any construction could begin, Wooten said.

“Using tolling to make up for the lack in funding is a great idea, but it’s a shame we’re this far down the road when this idea was put forward,” Wooten said. “Ideally, tolling would have been a mechanism early on as a potential funding source.”

Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, who is a bank board member, voted in favor of the extension and was the only board member to vote in favor of the overall project’s continuation.

“I thought things were going well. We debated for about an hour, took a break, and the votes weren’t there,” Limehouse said. “In my mind, at the end of the day, this is one of the worthiest projects in the state. And if we have to fund it and extend deadlines here and there, that’s what our job is — to help projects go forward.”

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Liz Segrist

Staff Writer
Liz Segrist covers manufacturing, aerospace, ports, technology, startups and commercial real estate for the Charleston Regional Business Journal. Reach her at 843-849-3119 or via email.