County still on the hook for $11.5 million for unbuilt Interstate 526

Charleston County must repay $11.5 million it spent for the stalled Mark Clark Expressway project unless the state Department of Transportation agrees to build the highway on James and Johns islands, said County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor.

“That’s the way the contract is written. Right now it would knock a big hole in the budget,” Pryor said.

The three-way contract for the more than $400 million project is between the county, the DOT and the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank. Lawyers for the DOT and the bank are evaluating the situation.

“They’re picking it apart and looking at it,” said DOT spokesman Pete Poore.

Poore knew of no timeline for a DOT decision on the future of I-526 “unless the commission jumps up and says, ‘Let’s get this thing done,’ ” he said.

DOT Commission Chairman Eddie Adams of Seneca did not return a call seeking comment. Last March, he said in an interview that the project needed to be fully funded before the DOT could take responsibility for it. The bank has approved $420 million for completion of I-526. The actual price tag is unknown until the environmental review process is finished. Adams estimated that at least another $75 million is needed, and maybe more.

Poore said completion of I-526 was last brought up at a DOT commission meeting three months ago. “The discussion was more about questions than answers,” he said.

Just a mess
Pryor said the DOT taking over the project is the only way out of the contract for the county. “The kicker is even if someone else comes in and does this road we are still liable for any cost overrun,” he said.

However, if DOT agrees to assume responsibility for the road, the county is completely off the financial hook, Pryor said.

“That’s what I’m hoping and praying will happen,” he said.

Pryor said it was a mistake for council to take on building the road.

“I was new to council at that time. I had just gotten elected. But hindsight is 20/20. If I had it to do all over again I would have said no,” he said.

Pryor said the situation is “just a mess” but he thinks a solution will happen.

“I think we’re going to work this thing out but I don’t have a timetable,” he said.

Those calling for completion of the project include Pryor and mayors Joe Riley of Charleston, Billy Swails of Mount Pleasant and Keith Summey of North Charleston. Supporters, including residents of Kiawah Island, have cited the need for improved, safe evacuation during a hurricane. Opponents on James and Johns islands worry about the expressway changing the character of the islands. They would prefer improvements to existing roads. Environmentalists have cited concerns about acres of lost marshlands because of the interstate construction and the shadows that the bridges will cast on wetlands.

The eight-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-526 where it intersects U.S. Highway 17.

In the wake of opposition expressed at public hearings more than a year ago, council voted not to build the highway but rescinded that vote when it became apparent it would be responsible for repaying to the bank the $11.5 million spent on engineering, right-of-way acquisition and environmental studies. In effect, the bank told council it was in default on the loan agreement because it had decided not to build the road.

The council vote to rescind the decision not to build the road happened in May of last year by a margin of 5-4. Council members Colleen Condon, Dickie Schweers, Joe Qualey and Herb Sass cast the dissenting votes.

A safety issue
In the original agreement, the DOT was working for the county to oversee the project. Now, the county is asking the DOT to take the expressway off its hands entirely. The bank has said OK to the new, proposed arrangement.

“Clearly the DOT is not prioritizing the I-526 project,” said state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, a member of the bank board.

“The money is in place for them to start. They need to proceed with the project or deny it,” he said.

Limehouse said building the eight-mile highway is not for the benefit of those who want to develop Johns and James islands, as some critics think. The project is for the benefit of the public, he said.

“This is a safety project for getting people on and off the islands. We’re talking about hurricane evacuation. It’s time to get politics out of the equation. Clearly, there’s a transportation need,” he said.

About 80 percent of the cost already is allocated from the bank, he said.

“In my opinion, the key to the project is getting the two bridges built,” he said.

The project could be scaled back and some of the interchanges removed. It is more about moving traffic through the islands than development, he said.

“Counties don’t need to be in the road-building business,” he said. The responsibility belongs to the state, he said.

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