Are there other options for I-526?

Anti Interstate 526 signs line a section of Riverland Road on Wedesday, Nov. 28, 2012 on James Island.

Instead of completing Interstate 526 across James and Johns islands, the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank could pay for a batch of smaller projects that would alleviate traffic congestion, according to state Rep. Chip Limehouse.

What’s next

Before Charleston County Council decides whether to turn over the I-526 project to the city, there will be an information meeting:

Who: Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, county staffers and a member of opposition group Nix 526 will make presentations.

When: 5 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Charleston County Council chambers, second floor, Lonnie Hamilton III Public Services Building, 4045 Bridge View Drive, North Charleston

Charleston County Council stands poised to decide whether to turn over the controversial completion of I-526 to the city — which surely would build it — but other options might enter the picture before an expected Dec. 13 vote.

Meeting change

Charleston City Council’s next meeting will be at 5 p.m. Wednesday in Charleston City Hall. Most council meetings are held on Tuesdays, but Mayor Joe Riley will make a presentation Tuesday on I-526 to Charleston County Council.

At a meeting Tuesday, County Council will hear presentations from Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, a strong supporter of the completion of the Mark Clark Expressway; Robin Welch, one of the founders of the opposition group Nix 526; and county staff members, who will present a list of options on how council might want to move forward with the project.

Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said council is not expected at that meeting to vote on whether to turn over the project, or any other issues connected to the extension of the road. It could vote at its Dec. 13 meeting.

County Council members Colleen Condon and Dickie Schweers said they don’t think the majority of council members would vote in favor of turning it over.

Council members who are opposed to the project won’t do that because the city would build it, they said. And some council members who support the project are opposed to the idea of giving up control of it.

Pryor said County Council had been told by the Infrastructure Bank, the group that is funding the $558 million project, that the county either had to build the road or pay back $11.6 million already spent on the project.

And instead of a traditional interstate, it had to build a parkway-style road, which the state Department of Transportation selected as its preferred alternative.

Limehouse, R-Charleston, who is a member of the Infrastructure Bank’s board, said the board has wide discretionary power and could vote to fund a batch of smaller projects, rather than to complete I-526.

That’s news to county staffers and several council members who prepared a list of $260 million worth of alternative projects and attempted to present the plan to the Infrastructure Bank Board in May 2011, after the group voted against the parkway plan for completing the road.

That proposal included:

Interchange improvements at I-526 and the Glenn McConnell Parkway.

An overpass at U.S. Highway 17 and Main Road, which is an entry onto Johns Island.

Widening of Main Road from Bees Ferry Road to Maybank Highway.

Pryor said the bank board immediately rejected the county’s alternative proposal, and bank board members said they couldn’t reallocate the money without moving the project to the bottom of a priority list.

If the alternative proposal really is an option, Pryor said, “that should be on the table.”

Limehouse said the bank board previously has moved projects to the front of the funding line, citing funding for improvements to Charleston’s Septima P. Clark Parkway, known as the Crosstown, as an example.

Infrastructure Bank board Chairman Donald Leonard, Vice Chairman Max Metcalf and Secretary Ric Tapp did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

Debra Rountree, the board’s director of operations, provided a somewhat circular explanation for the bank board not considering the county’s alternative proposal.

She said the board in 2011 didn’t accept it because it was not completed as an official application. And the board couldn’t have accepted an official application anyway, because the bank didn’t have any money left for projects.

The proposed $260 million in alternative projects was far less than the $489 million that was approved for I-526 at that time, she said. But the $489 million project was still on the books as an approved project, so there was no bonding capacity left.

Limehouse said he would prefer that the road be built as a traditional interstate, but that he would consider other options. He is waiting for County Council to make a decision before he thinks about the next steps.

Schweers, who consistently has opposed the road, said County Council had been told that its only options were to build the road as a parkway or pay back nearly $12 million already spent on the project. “If that’s not the case, someone was asleep on the job to let everyone believe that for so long.”

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

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