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Charleston County is pushing ahead with a plan to take more control and build the controversial extension of Interstate 526, even though the project's contract remains unsigned and such tasks usually are left to the state Department of Transportation.
County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said the county is working along two tracks to move forward on the $558 million project, which has made little visible progress since council voted in favor of it in December.
County staffers are looking for a qualified company to manage the project, Pryor said. And they are working with the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank and the DOT to complete the revised, three-way contract necessary to move the project forward.
Pryor said some people have questioned whether the county has the skills and resources to take on such a large construction project. But he's certain that it does. “We've never built an interstate,” Pryor said, “but we do a good job with roads.”
The completion of I-526 across Johns and James islands will be a parkway with speed limits between 35 and 45 mph, he said, and the road will not be designated an interstate because of those speed limits. “Now it's a regular road. It's a highway.”
County Councilman Dickie Schweers, an opponent of the I-526 project, said he thinks the county taking it on is a bad idea. “I think that's the reason the SCDOT exists,” he said, “to manage mega-projects.”
He also said that he wasn't aware that the county had officially put out a call to companies interested in managing the project. The December vote to move forward with I-526 included a provision that allowed staffers to take actions on the project without first presenting them to County Council, he said.
Barrett Tolbert, the county's contracts and procurement director, said the county posted a Request for Qualifications for a management company on July 12. That's the first step in narrowing down the list of qualified, interested management companies, he said.
And he made it clear that the county is looking only for a project manager now, not a construction company to actually build the road. The county will invite some of the companies who respond to the request to submit formal proposals, he said. Interested companies must apply by Oct. 1.
The county is being careful to conduct the selection process appropriately, Tolbert said. “We're dotting all our i's and crossing all our t's.”
Jake Libaire, a project manager for the Coastal Conservation League, a group opposed to the project, said he's confused by the county's change in stance on building the road. Last year the county tried to turn over the entire project to the DOT, he said. At the time, some council members said the county shouldn't be in the business of building interstates. The plan for the road was the same then as it is now, Libaire said. “So what changed between then and now?”
Pryor said he thinks negotiations on the three-way contract are in their final stages, and that the Infrastructure Bank and DOT ultimately will approve of the county's plan to take over construction of the road.
DOT spokesman Peter Poore said staffers from his agency are working on the contract, known as an Intergovernmental Agreement, or IGA, but he can't estimate how long it will take to complete. The DOT commission will hold a workshop Thursday morning, he said, and the group will discuss the matter there. Agendas for that workshop and other Thursday DOT meetings will be released this week, he said.
Pryor said the county already will have narrowed the list of possible qualified management companies by the time the IGA is complete. “It will get us ahead of the ball game,” he said. “All we have to do is select a firm.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.