I-526 dispute affecting flood control project
By SAMMY FRETWELL The State
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley urged a state board Wednesday to spend $88 million to help the city solve flooding problems that plague the historic downtown after heavy rains.
But money that could be used for the drainage project is tied up in another Charleston project that many people oppose. The state Transportation Infrastructure Bank board has already committed $420 million for the extension of Interstate 526 and board members say they have relatively little money for other projects around the state.
Many I-526 opponents say Infrastructure Bank money could be used for other road work in South Carolina, including the U.S. 17 drainage project unveiled Wednesday at a meeting in Columbia.
Road projects in Beaufort, Berkeley and Dorchester counties are among those also awaiting state money from the Infrastructure Bank. Officials with the new Boeing plant in Charleston County are interested in funding, as are leaders in Columbia who want to relocate railroad tracks on Assembly Street.
“The Infrastructure Bank needs to make a decision about whether it wants to move forward with a project nobody wants in Charleston or free up this funding to pay for other projects,’’ said Megan Desrosiers, a S.C. Coastal Conservation League official whose group sent a letter to the board Wednesday expressing its concerns.
Infrastructure Bank priorities are part of a growing debate in South Carolina about construction of new roads. Critics say the state’s system should rank projects based on need, but politics more often decide which projects are done first. The S.C. Department of Transportation, which is separate from the bank, has been under scrutiny for pushing a $344 million bond package for roads that critics say were not priorities.
The Infrastructure Bank plans to review priorities for funding, board chairman Don Leonard said.
Charleston County officials have had second thoughts about extending I-526.The the road’s status remains in limbo after a torrent of opposition. Opponents say the project would disrupt neighborhoods in communities, such as James Island, and open ecologically important land on Johns Island to development. Road boosters say the I-526 extension would complete a plan envisioned decades ago to ease traffic congestion in the Charleston area.
Meanwhile, heavy rains continue to turn the streets of Charleston into watery corridors, Infrastructure Bank board members were told. Riley, who supports the extension of I-526, told the board he also backs the flood control work along U.S. 17. The city would chip in about $66 million, to go with the $88 million in bank funds, according to plans. Bank board members said the project is worthwhile.
“This is a broken piece of infrastructure that desperately needs to be fixed,’’ Riley said. ”It threatens the lives, the safety and health of our citizens; the livability of adjacent neighborhoods; and is a substantial detriment to the economy of our region and the state of South Carolina.’’
Flooding in the area makes it hard for ambulances to reach stricken victims, churchgoers to attend Sunday services, and children to reach school on rainy days, Riley and a group of Charleston leaders told the bankboard. Riley showed slides of flooding on and near U.S. 17.
The Infrastructure Bank is an independent public agency established in 1997 to pay for major projects, such as new and improved highways. It is funded through more than $100 million annually in state revenue from gasoline taxes and other sources. Because of previous commitments, thebank now has about $84 million in funding capacity available for road projects until 2017, officials said.
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