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I-526 gets $138 million needed to fully fund extension; DOT still on fence about taking on project

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The completion of the Mark Clark Expressway got the $138 million jolt that could jumpstart the long-stalled project. But that doesn’t mean opposition to the controversial road will quiet down anytime soon.

DOT role

State Rep. Chip Limehouse said the Department of Transportation now must agree to take over the project and make it a priority.

DOT officials have said they have made no decisions or commitments on Interstate 526, and they don’t know when they will make a decision.

The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank’s seven-member board voted unanimously via teleconference Friday to guarantee an additional $138 million for extending Interstate 526 from West Ashley across Johns and James islands.

Previously $420 million was available, but the state Department of Transportation’s latest estimate for the project is $558 million.

The DOT is considering taking over the project, but officials have said they would not do that unless money was available to complete it and they were certain it had widespread community support — a survey to help determine that is under way.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican and member of the bank’s board, said board members were united in their support of the project. The meeting was over in less than 10 minutes, he said.

The road is needed to alleviate traffic congestion and improve hurricane evacuation, he said. Once it is built, the entire Charleston area will move better, he said. “This was the missing piece of the puzzle.”

Limehouse said he has been hearing conversations about I-526 since he was 15 years old. He’s now 50 and thinks it’s time for the project to move forward. “I don’t want to wait another 35 years.”

The Infrastructure Bank would borrow money for the I-526 project by issuing bonds.

The final $138 million would come from money the bank could borrow after 2020.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a strong supporter of the project, also has said it’s time to get it under way.

Some local groups remain opposed to the project because they think it will promote sprawl, and that there are other more pressing road projects.

Robin Welch from Nix 526, a local grass-roots group, said members of her group were irate when they learned Thursday that the bank board had met without notifying the public that it would discuss I-526. “It was a corrupt move, low-down and dirty,” she said.

Nix 526 has more than 2,000 members on Facebook, and another 300 on a traditional mailing list, she said. On Friday, more than 100 new people signed on to the group’s Facebook page, the most for any single day so far.

Members also are bothered that the bank didn’t wait for the results of a DOT survey on whether residents support the project, Welch said.

The department sent a questionnaire to 5,000 randomly selected homes late last month to gauge community support. Officials have not yet said when they expect the survey results.

A Charleston County Council committee this month considered bringing the matter to voters in November, but a majority of council members were opposed to doing that.

Council voted in January to turn over the project to the DOT, but the department hasn’t yet agreed to take it.

Welch said her group will continue to fight the project, but she does not know yet how it will do that.

Chris DeScherer, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, sent letters to members of the bank’s board Friday, expressing opposition. The center represents the Coastal Conservation League, an opponent of the project.

“There are some very serious problems with this project in terms of environmental laws,” DeScherer said. And it won’t help local traffic problems, he said. “It likely will make them worse.”

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

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