Deadline set for Charleston County to come up with plan for $300M I-526 shortfall
By Diane Knich
The Post and Courier
December 15, 2015
Charleston County has less than four months to come up with a solid plan to cover the more than $300 million funding shortfall for the completion of Interstate 526.
If it can’t do that, the $420 million in state money set aside for the project could be dispersed to other large projects throughout South Carolina, according to a resolution passed Tuesday by the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank board.
That would effectively kill the project, which has been argued over for years.
The board passed the resolution with a 6-1 vote. State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, voted against it.
Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey did not attend the meeting in Columbia. He said he was told the county couldn’t weigh in on the matter, so there was no reason to go.
But after the meeting, Summey said the road is desperately needed to alleviate traffic congestion on Johns and James islands. And he will continue to fight for it.
“I am very disappointed in the leadership of our state,” Summey said. “We’re being set up for failure.”
He also sent a letter to bank board Chairman Vince Graham, telling him that the resolution directs the county to do things it doesn’t have the legal authority to do. For instance, the letter stated, the resolution mandates that the county adopt measures that financially bind future councils. “My council cannot accomplish this directive under our system of government,” Summey stated in the letter.
The resolution requires Charleston County to:
Develop a solid plan to cover the project’s $305 million to $353 million funding shortfall and adopt a binding resolution to fund or secure funding for it by March 30.
Complete a new three-party contract, known as an Intergovernmental Agreement, with the bank and the DOT by April 30.
Adopt and implement a legally enforceable ordinance putting the plan in place and making funds available on a schedule acceptable to the bank by Dec. 16, 2016.
If the county doesn’t do those things on time, the bank could distribute the $420 million set aside for the Mark Clark extension to other projects, the resolution stated.
County Councilman Dickie Schweers, a longtime opponent of the highway extension, said the bank’s resolution will “force the issue” of whether I-526 will be completed.
People in favor of the extension have said it is necessary to relieve severe traffic congestion. Opponents have said it isn’t a state or regional priority, will harm the fragile island environment and promote sprawl, which ultimately will generate more traffic than it alleviates.
Schweers also said it’s an overly expensive project, “beyond the affordability of Charleston County.” If voters are asked to cover the shortfall through a referendum for another half-cent sales tax, he said, he doesn’t think they will vote for it. “I don’t think the taxpayers of Charleston County will have an appetite for it,” he said.
Charleston Mayor-elect John Tecklenburg, who campaigned in support of the project, called the bank’s vote “a real disappointment.”
However, he said, “while there aren’t any silver bullets, there are a couple of concrete steps we can and should take now to keep I-526 moving forward.”
First, the county should move forward with getting the necessary environmental permits and getting a more reliable cost estimate, Tecklenburg said. Then it should work closely with local, regional and state officials to get the project on the DOT’s priority list, where it would be eligible for other state and federal funding to fill the current gap.
Summey said he doesn’t think county voters should have to pay more for I-526 than they already have. The county already completed $117 million in improvements to state-owned roads within its borders as a match for the completion of I-526. “The taxpayers of Charleston County have shouldered their share of the project.”