Many complicated projects become at least a bit clearer with each step forward, but the completion of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands becomes murkier.
Mayor Joe Riley and the city of Charleston are poised to take over and complete the long-stalled and controversial project, if Charleston County would agree to turn it over to the city. So far, the majority of County Council members are reluctant to do that. But that could change before the group meets in December.
Charleston City Councilís vote last week to ask the county to turn over sponsorship of the project raised a new batch of questions about the future of the road.
Q. What is the cityís plan for I-526 if it were to take over the project?
A. The city would build the road as a parkway, with a 45 mph speed limit. That plan is the state Department of Transportationís preferred alternative for the road, often referred to as ďAlternative G.Ē
It would include:
Overpasses at Savannah Highway and East Shore Lane in West Ashley; Maybank Highway on Johns Island; and Folly Road on James Island.
Two bridges across the Stono River.
Two new ground-level roads connecting to River Road on Johns Island.
Ground-level intersections at Riverland Drive and Riley Road on James Island.
Q. What is the current cost estimate for the road?
A. The current estimate is $558 million. That includes the overpasses in West Ashley and at Folly Road on James Island.
Mayor Riley said he would like to include an overpass at Riley Road on James Island, and on and off ramps at the two new roads connecting to River Road on Johns Island. Those ramps would be built either above or below the highway, and would eliminate the need for intersections.
According to the DOT, those changes would drive up the cost to $607 million. But Riley said he thinks the city could find and hire a company to build the road that would include those features while staying in the $558 million budget for the project.
Q. Many residents say they would prefer the road be a traditional, high-speed interstate. Could the city build a road like that?
A. No. Hernan Pena, the cityís director of traffic and transportation, said that would drive up the cost by at least $100 million, require more land for right-of-way, put more people out of their homes and have a more severe impact on the environment.
And Riley said that such an extreme modification to the design would require the city to repeat a long and arduous DOT approval process.
Q. Riley and other elected officials have said they expect the Coastal Conservation League to sue to prevent the road from moving forward. Would the league file a lawsuit?
A. Maybe. Dana Beach, the leagueís director and strong opponent of the project, said right now, there is nothing over which to file a lawsuit.
He also said some federal environmental agencies already have raised concerns about the projectís impact, which could prevent it from moving forward. But, if the those agencies agreed to issue the required permits, the Coastal Conservation League might appeal. Such appeals could delay progress on the road for three to four years, Beach said.
Q. If Charleston County Council votes against turning over the project to the city, does that mean itís dead?
A. Itís hard to say. It appeared a few times in the past that the I-526 project would die. But it has some powerful supporters who seem to bring it back to life.
Thereís a three-party contract in place to build the road. The county is the project sponsor. The DOT is the project manager, and the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank is paying for the project.
House Speaker Bobby Harrell, a strong supporter of the project, said heís certain County Council will vote to turn it over to the city, so he doesnít need to consider now what would happen if the county voted against the move. If the county votes to turn it over, the city would assume the sponsorship role, Harrell said.
Q. The road would run through the city and unincorporated parts of Charleston County. Would the city need county approval to build in unincorporated regions?
A. No. County officials said they are not aware of any law that would require a municipality to get the countyís consent to build roads in unincorporated areas.
Q. Who would be responsible if the project runs over budget?
A. Eddie Adams, chairman of the DOTís commission, said the city of Charleston would be responsible. But Riley said an overrun wonít happen. The city would hire a firm to build the road that was committed to adhering to the budget.
And both Riley and Harrell said that the Infrastructure Bank, which is paying for the project, never has failed to provide full funding for a project it agreed to take on.
Q. Whatís next?
A. Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said he has called a special Finance Committee meeting at 6 p.m. Dec. 4. At that meeting, county staffers and Riley will present options for the future of I-526.
Pryor said he doesnít expect County Council to vote on whether to turn over the project to the city until Dec. 13.