I-526 extension in limbo

The estimated cost to complete the Mark Clark Expressway has soared to $556 million, nearing the $632 million price tag of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. Buy this photo

Charleston County Council voted this year to hand over the controversial extension of the Mark Clark Expressway to the state Department of Transportation. But the DOT never officially took control of the massive construction project, leaving its fate in bureaucratic limbo, council leaders said.

I-526 timeline

JUNE 2007: The state Department of Transportation agrees to manage the Mark Clark Expressway project on James and Johns islands.



AUGUST-SEPTEMBER 2010: At five public hearings held by the DOT, speakers are overwhelmingly opposed to Interstate 526 on the islands. At the hearings, the DOT presents its preferred route for the road and summarizes results of its environmental study.



APRIL 2011: Charleston County Council stands firm against completing I-526, despite a warning that the move would cost the cash-strapped county more than $11 million. The State Infrastructure Bank warns council members that the county would have to pay back what has been spent on the project so far for right-of-way issues and engineering and environmental studies.



JANUARY 2012: Expressing concerns about the slow pace of the project, the State Infrastructure Bank board votes to reassign responsibility for the Mark Clark Expressway completion over the islands from council to the DOT. Charleston County Council agrees with a 7-2 vote a week later.



JUNE 2012: The Berkeley-Charleston Dorchester Council of Government’s transportation committee votes to increase the estimate to complete Interstate 526 from $489 million to $556 million. The DOT still has not responded to Charleston County Council about whether it will take over the project.

Chairman Teddie Pryor and Vice Chairman Elliott Summey said they now are trying to clear up confusion about the status of the project, the most recent cost estimate for which is $556 million. The cost figure is approaching that of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, the area’s most expensive road project, completed in 2005 with a price tag of $632 million.

DOT spokesman Robert Kudelka in a prepared statement said the department is in discussions with the State Infrastructure Bank about taking on the project.

The DOT and the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments’ transportation committee will have the final decision on whether to accept the project reassignment. Kudelka’s statement did not include any information on when a final decision might be made.

Summey said he approached Bruce Murdy, from the politically connected Rawle Murdy public relations firm, for advice about clearing up confusion surrounding the project among some members of the public.

He said neither he nor the county is paying the firm for the advice.

Summey and Pryor said they are in favor of extending Interstate 526 from West Ashley across Johns and James islands. But a recent action taken by the Council of Governments’ 44-member transportation committee last month to update the project’s cost was not about promoting construction of the road, they said.

Pryor is a member and Summey is chairman of that committee, which voted to update the cost estimate from $489 million to $556 million.

The committee’s move was instead about freeing the county from possibly having to reimburse the DOT for more than $11 million already spent on the project, Summey said.

Summey said many opponents of completing I-526 since the committee’s vote have said that the additional $67 million has been appropriated for the project, but he said that is not true.

That’s not an action the Council of Governments is authorized to take, he said.

And Summey and Pryor said they don’t have plans in the works to bring in the money. They simply want to get the county off the project’s financial hook.

County Council in January voted to give up control of the long-stalled project. Members voted 7-2 in favor of turning the project over to the DOT, hoping that would free the county from having to pay back the money.

The DOT can’t move forward with the project unless the cost estimate is updated, Summey said. He hopes that the Council of Governments’ action made it more likely that the DOT would officially accept the project.

The most recent preferred alternative for completing the project, known as “Alternative G,” would be an 8-mile-long, four-lane highway and 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-526 where it intersects U.S. Highway 17.

Many residents were strongly opposed to that alternative, including Johns Island farmer Thomas Legare, a vocal opponent of the project.

“I don’t see how anybody in the Charleston area could not be opposed to it,” he said. It’s very expensive and based on a 40-year-old design, he said.

Personally, he said, he is opposed because it would shift existing traffic, bring more traffic and promote urban sprawl on the rural island.

Only $420 million is available for the project now, and it remains unclear whether the road will be finished.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.

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