Work Speeds Ahead on Replacing Century-Old Bridges With Tunnel

S.C. Infrastructure Bank Approves $138M for I-526

Fri August 31, 2012 - Southeast Edition
CEG


South Carolina’s highway bonding agency has committed an additional $138 million toward completing Interstate 526 to give faster access to and from Charleston’s western suburbs.
South Carolina’s highway bonding agency has committed an additional $138 million toward completing Interstate 526 to give faster access to and from Charleston’s western suburbs.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) South Carolina’s highway bonding agency has committed an additional $138 million toward completing Interstate 526 to give faster access to and from Charleston’s western suburbs.

The seven-member board of the state’s infrastructure bank voted unanimously in a teleconference Aug. 17 to guarantee the money.

About $420 million was available for completing the Mark Clark Expressway across Johns and James islands. But the latest estimate for the project is $558 million.

Rep. Chip Limehouse, a board member, said the Department of Transportation must agree to take over the project from Charleston County and make it a priority. DOT officials have said they wouldn’t do so unless the money was available and the project had widespread community support.

Whether the expressway should be completed, and if so, what kind of road, has been debated for years.

The I-526 loop currently begins and ends on U.S. 17, linking Mount Pleasant, North Charleston and the West Ashley area of Charleston. Opponents say extending it through James and Johns islands will promote sprawl and destroy sensitive wetlands. Supporters argue it will relieve traffic congestion and improve hurricane evacuation.

Limehouse, R-Mount Pleasant, said the project will greatly improve traffic flow throughout the Charleston area. But an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center counters that it could make traffic problems worse.

The final $138 million would not be available until after 2020.

That’s because the infrastructure bank, created in 1997 to leverage limited state funding for highway and bridge projects through borrowing, has no more bonding capacity until some of its debt is paid down.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who appoints two board members, said it’s time to move forward. The Charleston Republican contends the project is widely supported.

“Let’s be clear, this isn’t some new-fangled project or idea. I-526 was always meant to be completed and the people of the Lowcountry have well voiced their intent on this issue — they want this road finished,” he said in a release. “I only regret that it took so long for our community to overcome the many difficult challenges this widely supported project faced.”

But opponents are numerous too — and vocal. They’re angry by what they consider a secretive move. Harrell’s news release said the money had already been approved.

The board took an initial vote Aug. 16, but the project wasn’t on the meeting’s agenda, so attorneys recommended the board give 24 hours’ notice and reconvene Aug. 17. The teleconference was over in minutes.

The DOT sent out a survey to 5,000 randomly selected homes in July to gauge community support. Officials haven’t said when they expect results. Robin Welch of Nix 526 said her group will continue to fight the project.