State won’t push I-526 on its own

State won’t push I-526 on its own
DOT will honor county objection, spokesman says

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Alan Hawes // The Post and Courier

The proposed extension of I-526 would run from U.S. Highway 17 in West Ashley, across the Stono River to Johns Island and James Island, where it ties in to the James Island connector at Folly Road (pictured above).

If Charleston County says it doesn’t want Interstate 526 to be completed, the S.C. Department of Transportation apparently won’t press ahead over the county’s objections.

Some county officials had warned Thursday, while voting on the fate of the highway plan, that if the county tried to unilaterally block the road work, the state could proceed anyway, and then send the county a large bill.

County Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey told members of council and a large audience that “the state could continue to build the road without our consent, and Charleston County taxpayers could be on the hook.”

The Transportation Department seems to have now ruled out that possibility.

“SCDOT would not move forward with the I-526 Extension without Charleston County’s approval, as we are an agent for the county on this project,” agency spokesman Peter Poore said Friday.

“The funding for the project was approved by the SIB (State Infrastructure Bank) to Charleston County, not

SCDOT,” he said. “Furthermore, we would not move forward with construction on any alternative without the county having a complete funding package in place.”

Summey said he found the Transportation Department’s statement interesting, but that it’s the opinion of the county’s attorney, Joe Dawson, that the three-way contract signed four years ago between the county, the Transportation Department and the Infrastructure Bank could obligate the Transportation Department to complete the highway.

Summey and Council Chairman Teddie Pryor on Thursday had sought to transfer the I-526 project, along with the Infrastructure Bank funding, to the Transportation Department.

A majority of the council rejected that idea, voting instead to ask the agency once again to consider different alternatives to completing I-526, such as improving existing roads, and to adopt a “no build” position on I-526 if the department rejects that request. The motion is aimed at switching some of the earmarked state funding to other road projects in Charleston County.

The council also unanimously rejected the state’s selected plan to complete I-526, known as “alternative G,” which called for building a parkway from I-526 in West Ashley to the James Island connector, via Johns Island.

Pryor, Summey and Councilman Vic Rawl opposed the “no build” vote, warning that it would cause a contract default that could allow the state to come after the county for the nearly $12 million spent on the I-526 project so far.

Chip Limehouse, a Republican state House member from Charleston County, is a member of the Infrastructure Bank board, and he said Friday that repayment of the $12 million is among “questions without answers right now.”

“Speaking for myself, as just one member of the SIB board, I would like to forgo that, but that’s up to the full board,” he said, adding that the contract language needs to be reviewed. “I think we’re all trying to determine what turning down the 526 money means for Charleston County.”

The Infrastructure Bank pledged $420 million for I-526, but the project has an estimated cost of $489 million. The lack of full funding was among the county’s objections to the plan.

Of the pledged amount, $99 million was initially approved for the project, including the nearly $12 million spent so far. Limehouse said that with the county now opposed to the plan, he’ll seek to have the balance of the $99 million reallocated for other improvements to I-526 and I-26, related to the new Boeing aircraft assembly plant.

“I hope he’s successful,” Summey said. “We’ll take the money if they give it to us.”

County Councilwoman Colleen Condon said she hopes the county will present a list of alternative road projects in need of funding.

“I am a bit worried about (SIB) taking the money spent on the environmental impact process,” Condon said, referring to the $12 million.

The remaining questions could get some answers next week. Charleston County Council meets again Tuesday evening and the Infrastructure Bank board may be meeting earlier that day.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.

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