The State:Charleston project holds up Columbia roadwork

By SAMMY FRETWELL -  sfretwell@thestate.com
A planned $500 million highway in Charleston that many Lowcountry residents oppose is preventing the state from awarding money for major road, rail and bridge projects in other parts of South Carolina.

In Columbia, local officials want to elevate train tracks on Assembly Street as part of a $100 million plan to improve key arteries through downtown. Multimillion dollar projects in York, Beaufort, Jasper and Aiken counties also have been proposed for funding by the state Infrastructure Bank, an independent agency set up in 1997 to pay for large projects with public money.

But the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank has no more money to give out — in large part because it awarded funds for a proposed Charleston freeway that has become so controversial some local residents are pushing to cancel it. Charleston County leaders have heard increasing opposition since the bank approved their $420 million application for the new road in 2006.

Critics say the seven-mile connector from Interstate 526 to James Island is unnecessary, expensive and won’t improve traffic flow. They also note that it will open development corridors in ecologically important areas, such as Johns Island.

Proponents say the project would move traffic more smoothly from areas south of Charleston to North Charleston, but the state’s top transportation official said it’s apparent many people don’t like it, based on their comments at public meetings. Buck Limehouse, who heads the S.C. Department of Transportation, has written several letters to Charleston County officials expressing concern.

“There is substantial opposition and substantial cost,’’ Limehouse said last week. “We have got to resolve whether to build it or not build it. It’s costing money every day. The funds could be used somewhere else if we decide not to do it.”

Resolution of the issue is ultimately up to Charleston County, which applied for the funds from the Infrastructure Bank — set up to address projects of statewide significance. If the county backs away from the project, it could free up money for other road work around South Carolina.

The $420 million promise for I-526 is the largest of at least seven outstanding funding commitments the bank has made for road projects in South Carolina. Those include the completion of the Carolina Bays Parkway to southern Myrtle Beach and a series of local road improvements in Florence County.

Don Leonard, chairman of the bank’s board, said the board has committed the vast majority of its existing money.

If the I-526 extension goes through, it will be years before bank money is available to pay for other projects, DOT officials acknowledged. For now, the bank would need more incoming revenue to provide money for additional projects.

About $99 million of the $420 million has been provided for initial work, such as for design and right-of-way acquisition. The rest of the money would be drawn down later. The entire project could cost closer to $500 million, leaving a need for more money, say those who are tracking the issue.

Other projects waiting

Just a portion of the $420 million could pay for two major projects in Columbia that are floundering for lack of money.

One is a new road linking Columbia Metropolitan Airport to Interstate 26, which is expected to cost $80 million. The other is the rail and street improvement project, which would affect Assembly, Huger and North Main streets. That’s expected to cost about $100 million.

Columbia, where motorists headed to work or USC football games are often stopped by slow-moving trains, needs money to improve major streets and make upgrades to prevent trains from blocking automobile traffic. The city’s plan would improve arteries, such as Assembly and Huger streets, and eliminate four rail crossings, which would be replaced by an overpass near the USC engineering school at Catawba Street. The city prepared an Infrastructure Bank application about two years ago.

“We are prepared, but it is all on hold,’’ said Teresa Wilson, the city’s governmental affairs director. “We would love for this to be considered.’’

Area officials also are looking for money to complete a connector from Columbia Metropolitan Airport to I-26. Although local officials haven’t asked for Infrastructure Bank money, they might do so if funds were available for the $80 million airport road, or John Hardee Expressway, said Norman Whitaker, director of Central Midlands Council of Governments.

“You have to be prepared to look at all the available potential sources,’’ Whitaker said. He said the Hardee project is ready to go if money can be found.

Statewide, officials in other counties have asked for Infrastructure Bank funds, but also are waiting. Project requests include $221 million to extend Dave Lyle Boulevard in York County, $63 million to improve Interstate 20 in Aiken County near the Savannah River Site and $86 million to complete the Bluffton Parkway in Beaufort County, according to the transportation department.

And in Charleston County, where the controversial I-526 extension is planned, officials also have asked the Infrastructure Bank for $206 million to help fund a commuter rail system from downtown to outlying areas.

Conservationist Dana Beach said the Charleston area has many more important road needs than extending I-526 to link with the James Island Expressway. Studies have shown little improvement in the time it would take to reach downtown Charleston if the I-526 connector is built, he said.

Beach, who directs the influential S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said automobile-choked I-26, the major entry to downtown Charleston, is a bigger problem.

The new Boeing manufacturing plant, planned for North Charleston, also needs improved access, Beach said. How the state will pay for all the improvements is unresolved, he said.

The Infrastructure Bank “has simply tied up $420 million of state money that is supposed to be for projects of statewide significance for a project with no statewide significance and is opposed by most people in the affected area,’’ Beach said.

Despite criticism, many local officials support the extension from I-526 as a way to move traffic. The extension from I-526 would complete a highway loop around the city that was envisioned decades ago. I-526, known as the Mark Clark Expressway, now starts at Mount Pleasant above Charleston, runs inland and ties back into U.S. 17 below the city.

Charleston County Councilman and former state lawmaker Vic Rawl said scrapping the I-526 project could mean Charleston County loses valuable highway funds.

He acknowledged the I-526 plan has flaws, including a plan to cross James Island. The James Island Town Council has formally opposed the connector. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Marine Fisheries Service also have voiced concerns about impacts to wetlands and marine life.

Still, Rawl said the project is needed to move traffic.

Many — including Limehouse — credit the Infrastructure Bank with helping speed the progress of badly needed road and bridge work. That includes replacement of the old Cooper River bridge in Charleston, as well as the first phases of the Carolina Bays Parkway in Myrtle Beach.

The I-526 plan, however, shows weaknesses that have allowed a questionable project to get a major financial commitment, said David Farren, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. Guidelines on what qualifies as a project are vague, he said.

“The idea that you have an infrastructure bank for statewide projects is good, but it’s important they actually be the top projects in the state,’’ he said.

The State

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