Last week, money became available to complete the Mark Clark Expressway, but questions about the project linger.
The long-stalled, final leg of Interstate 526 sits in limbo while questions swirl, misinformation spreads, and the estimated cost continues to rise.
Here are answers to some pressing questions members of the public have asked about the project:
Q: Is there really enough money available now to finish I-526?
A: Yes. The most recent estimate from the state Department of Transportation to complete the road across Johns and James islands is $558 million. The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank already had planned to borrow $420 million by issuing bonds. Last week the bank’s board voted to borrow an additional $138 million it could borrow after 2020.
Q: What would happen to the $420 million if the road were not built?
A: That’s not totally clear. If the project doesn’t move forward, the bank wouldn’t need to borrow money. That could allow the state to borrow $420 million for other high-priority road projects.
Q: Why would the final leg of I-526 be a low-speed parkway and not a high-speed, limited-access expressway like the rest of the I-526 loop?
A: After studying myriad issues related to the completion of I-526, the DOT in 2010 announced that its preferred alternative for the road was the parkway plan, known as “Alternative G.” DOT leaders said the plan was a hybrid of two other proposals presented to the public in 2009. It also was a modified version of a proposal the city of Charleston submitted to the DOT in 2009. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called the plan “a quieter, more appropriately scaled road.” But state leaders in recent weeks have said the parkway plan could be modified to have fewer intersections and stoplights, and to allow for speeds between 45 and 50 miles per hour.
Q: What does the parkway plan include?
A: The 7-mile-long, four-lane highway would include five miles of bridges, including two 80-foot-tall spans over the Stono River. The project would connect Folly Road at the James Island connector with I-26 where it intersects U.S. Highway 17 in West Ashley.
Q: Why is the parkway plan so unpopular?
A: The most staunch supporters of the completion of I-526 tend to prefer the typical, high-speed interstate design. Most people who are opposed to the project are against any form of it. The compromise approach hasn’t received enthusiastic support.
Q: Is the completion of I-526 ranked highly on the regional road priority list?
A: No. According to the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments’ transportation committee, the road falls 15th on a list of 71 ranked projects. The highest priority project on that list is U.S. Highway 17 Alternate (North Main Street in Summerville). Improvements to the interchange of Interstates 26 and 526 is ranked second.
Q: Several state and local elected officials have said that voters supported the completion of I-526 in the 2004 half-cent sales tax referendum. Is that true?
A: No. The referendum did not include a list of specific projects. And a 2006 sales-tax bond referendum, which included a list of specific projects, did not include the completion of I-526. Some elected officials, however, say that the completion of I-526 was implied, and that other listed projects were based on the assumption that the road would be finished.
Q: What’s next for I-526?
A: That’s not clear. But the next move must come from the DOT. Charleston County Council voted to turn the project over to the DOT, but the department hasn’t yet agreed to take it. The department needed to know that there was money to complete it and that it had widespread community support. The money question was answered last week. To gauge public support for the road, the department last month sent a survey to 5,000 randomly selected homes. But DOT spokesman Peter Poore said last week that the department “makes no commitments concerning its role or the project’s path forward based on the results of the survey.”
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