The I-526 juggernaut
The state Department of Transportation is the next stop for the proposed I-526 extension, following approval of another $138 million for the controversial project by the State Infrastructure Bank on Friday. Even though the SIB is trying to eliminate any funding pressure on the DOT, its approval of the project should not be a foregone conclusion.
Indeed, under federal regulations for interstate highway construction, the DOT has to determine whether there is adequate public support for the project to proceed. Its random survey might not cut it.
Certainly the DOT recalls the five public hearings that staffers held in Charleston two years ago. The plan for a parkway, pushed by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, proved so unpopular that Charleston County Council later unanimously rejected it.
But council backed off that decision after the SIB threatened to force the county to pay $11.5 million in project costs under its contract with the bank. Considering that council was responding to a general public rejection of the plan, its original action in opposing the extension was more than reasonable.
And in retrospect, council might have done better to take the matter to court, under the assumption that it could hardly have been expected to act otherwise.
Instead, it retreated, and supporters of the project, primarily politicians and commercial interests, have been beating the drums on behalf of the extension since then.
So far, however, the state highway commission hasn’t been infected with “526 fever.” On Thursday, the commission said it wouldn’t even consider taking over the project unless it were fully funded.
“The DOT is broke,” Commissioner Jim Rozier told us Friday. “We can’t take care of what we’ve got.”
Another commissioner reportedly stated that he didn’t want to see “one penny” of DOT funding going to the I-526 project.
But the State Infrastructure Bank has more than made up for the DOT’s lack of enthusiasm for the project. Created to provide a funding mechanism for big infrastructure projects, the SIB has become an outright advocate for I-526.
And if the DOT doesn’t have the money to extend I-526, the SIB does. It agreed to add $138 million to the project, which already has a SIB commitment of $420 million.
The bank’s advocacy for this project should pique the interest of state lawmakers who are committed to using scarce highway funds for priority projects. There is strong sentiment to revive reform efforts for the DOT in the Legislature, and the role of the SIB clearly should be included in the discussion.
Even if I-526 doesn’t require financial support from the DOT, a vote by the commission to manage it would then require the project to be ranked under the priority system approved in the 2007 reform of the agency.
So the controversial extension could finally get an objective ranking as to its importance.
It’s obviously a priority to some local supporters, including House Speaker Bobby Harrell, Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, the mayors of Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant, and the Chamber of Commerce.
But how does it stack up to other projects of statewide importance, including road work related to the port, to Boeing, and to I-26?
Maybe we’ll soon find out.
Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, says it’s time to move ahead with I-526; otherwise, opponents will simply “talk it to death.” Rep. Limehouse is a member of the SIB board.
Lately, though, most of the chatter has been coming from those who want the extension built, whatever the level of public support or project priority it may claim.
The DOT should take a deliberate approach to I-526, if it decides to get involved.
There already are enough “official” cheerleaders for this questionable project.