Officials: I-526 not happening without new funding source
By Diane Knich
The Post and Courier
October 31, 2015
The completion of Interstate 526 is on its deathbed and only $300 million can resuscitate it. Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey said state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, the powerful Republican from Florence, told him earlier this week at a S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank board meeting that there only is $420 million available for the project, the estimated cost of which has jumped to $725 million.
Leatherman also told him that partially building the project wasn’t an option, and that if the county wanted the eight-mile road across Johns and James islands, it was going to have to come up with the remaining $300 million to pay for it. Others who attended the meeting confirmed Summey’s account.
Summey, who supports the Mark Clark completion project, said he couldn’t support asking county voters to approve a sales tax increase to raise the money for the highway, and he’s now unsure if the extension ever will be built. “The decision lies in the hands of one man from Florence,” he said, referring to Leatherman, who is the leader of the Senate, chairman of its Finance Committee, and a member of the Infrastructure Bank board and the Joint Bond Review Committee.
Leatherman couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.
The Infrastructure Bank, which is funding the I-526 project, “never asked anyone else to come up with more money” to complete a project, Summey said. Charleston County would be the first group required to do that.
Summey said the bank board is letting the county down. The county was required to put matching funds toward the project, which it did. It spent $171 million on state roads within the county’s boundaries. “The taxpayers of Charleston County deserve better than this. I’m ashamed to ever have been associated with it.”
The board, at its meeting Tuesday, however, didn’t officially vote to terminate the I-526 project.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said he met with Leatherman in Columbia just before the meeting and asked him not to call for a vote. Riley said he wanted “to reaffirm the essential nature and vital importance of I-526 to the Charleston region.” He also wanted to give the community that supports the project time to prepare and make a presentation on it.
Riley said he also spoke informally with each of the other six members of the Infrastructure Bank board before the meeting to “offer my strong support for I-526.”
“We have a lot of work to do” to keep the I-526 project alive, Riley said. “We need to get organized, work hard and get the community behind it. We need to put our shoulders to the wheel and figure it out.”
Riley said he thinks a countywide sales tax is an option for paying for the project. And, he said, an increase in the state gas tax also is an option.
The state’s General Assembly in 2016, the second in a two-year session, again will consider a roads bill that would bring in about $400 million annually for transportation projects in the state, primarily through a new tax on wholesale gasoline. The bill passed in the House last year but fell victim to a filibuster in the Senate.
The current version of the bill brings money to the Infrastructure Bank but prohibits the money from being used on projects approved by the bank before July 1. Interstate 526 originally was approved in 2007 and so wouldn’t be eligible to receive gas tax money under the bill’s current form.
Natalie Olson, land-use program director for the Coastal Conservation League, a strong opponent of the project, said, “It’s fair to say I-526 is dead because we don’t have the money, and even if we did, it’s not what we should be spending it on. … There’s no question there are higher priorities than the I-526 extension.”
County Councilwoman Colleen Condon, one of four council members who in 2012 voted against moving forward with the project, said the area needs traffic solutions now.
“There’s a real easy answer,” Condon said. Improvements should be made to existing roads to alleviate traffic congestion in West Ashley and on Johns and James islands. Widening Main Road on Johns Island and building an overpass at the intersection of U.S. Highway 17 and Main Road would improve traffic and could be completed much faster than I-526, she said. That project “really hasn’t made sense all along. I think it’s time to acknowledge there’s a better plan.”