Infrastructure Bank board to vote today on funding I-526 extension
COLUMBIA — The completion of Interstate 526 likely will clear one of two big hurdles standing in its way today.
The discussion on funding the $136 million shortfall to complete I-526 was not listed as a separate item on the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank board agenda Thursday. It was included as part of a larger discussion on “the status of projects under construction.”
The seven-member board was going to vote on whether to approve guaranteeing the money to complete the road, but a lawyer for the group advised members not to do that Thursday. Public bodies are required to give the public at least a 24 hour notice on such matters.
The board decided to hold a teleconference meeting at 4:30 p.m. today to vote on the matter. State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a member of the board, said he expects the matter to pass unanimously.
The board of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank will vote via teleconference this afternoon on whether it will guarantee funding for the controversial extension of the road from West Ashley across Johns and James islands.
Paying for it
The State Transportation Infrastructure Bank already has the go-ahead to borrow $420 million for the project by issuing bonds.
The bank technically can not borrow any more until after 2020. But House Speaker Bobby Harrell said there are two possible ways around that to allow for raising the additional $138 million needed to complete I-526.
First, the bank could include in the contract of the company that takes on the project to design and build the extension of I-526 that some of the money would not be available until after 2020.
It also could issue “bond anticipation notes,” a financing mechanism that would allow it to access enough for the shortfall, and pay back the money after 2020.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican and one of seven members on the bank’s board, said he expects the group to vote unanimously in favor of funding the road.
“This is a good thing,” Limehouse said about the long-stalled road project likely moving forward. “Everybody take a deep breath.”
Getting a guarantee that money is available to complete the project is important, because the state Department of Transportation is poised to take it on, but representatives have said the department wouldn’t do that until it is certain that money is available to complete it.
Available now is $420 million; the Transportation Department’s latest cost estimate for the project is $558 million, leaving a shortfall of $138 million.
Limehouse and House Speaker Bobby Harrell acknowledged that the bank would borrow additional money for the shortfall by issuing bonds. That money would not be available until after 2020.
The other hurdle facing the DOT? Officials have said they need to know that there is widespread community support for the project.
The agency is trying to gauge that with a survey of 5,000 randomly selected Charleston-area homes. Officials have not yet said when they expect to have the results of that survey.
The project has become a divisive issue among various factions of local and state officials and citizen groups.
Supporters of completing I-526 say the road is needed to alleviate traffic problems, improve safety and create a better hurricane-evacuation route.
Opponents say it would promote sprawl, especially in the rural parts of Johns Island, and that there are other, more important road projects on which the money should be spent.
The seven-member bank board discussed I-526 Thursday as part of a larger discussion on the status of state projects. Because the issue was not listed as a separate agenda item, the board could not officially vote on it, so it will do that via teleconference at 4:30 p.m. today.
Harrell, another Charleston Republican and a strong supporter of the project, said, “This is the last piece of funding. It’s time to build the road.”
Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League, which strongly opposes the I-526 project, said the actions the bank board took Thursday and will take today breached responsibility and public trust because they were not done in a clear and transparent manner in which the public could weigh in.
“It was the ultimate deal made yesterday in a smoke-filled room,” Beach said.
He also said the financing plan was taking money from future taxpayers for a road that isn’t one of the state’s highest priorities today. “It’s the ultimate Ponzi scheme,” he said.
Beach also said his group will continue to fight the project, which he doesn’t think will be built. He doubts that the road would get the required environmental permits from state and federal regulating agencies. “And we will appeal every permit.”
Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.