After months of confusion, harsh words and road policy ping-pong over I-526, a member of the State Infrastructure Bank said last week that, indeed, alternatives to the controversial road project can be considered.
Rep. Chip Limehouse’s comments confirmed the long-standing suspicion that the SIB board has more latitude in how it spends transportation money than it has been willing to acknowledge.
Certainly the SIB demonstrated flexibilty by quickly funding Charleston’s Crosstown project to provide flood relief. In fact, that project was cited by Mr. Limehouse in our report as evidence of the SIB’s discretion.
Rep. Limehouse’s remarks in our Thursday report generated great interest on both sides of the controversy, and late Friday, he repudiated the account in a lengthy letter sent to County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor.
Certainly, it’s not the first time a politician has backtracked on a story, and then blamed the messenger.
Nevertheless, his initial remarks on the matter should provide the impetus for County Council to further pursue a Plan B solution, intially sought last year as an alternative to the interstate loop.
Council requested SIB support for a range of improvements last year after rejecting the plan to extend I-526.
Those projects included widening Main Road from Bees Ferry Road to Maybank Highway and building an overpass at U.S. 17 and Main Road, which is a chokepoint for traffic to and from Johns Island.
The cost of all the recommended projects was $260 million, less than the latest estimate for I-526, but large enough to meet the SIB threshold for funding. Currently, the 526 project is estimated at more than $500 million.
County Council sought the alternative improvements after the current plan for the highway extension was roundly rejected in a series of five public hearings in 2010.
Some objected to the transformation of I-526 from a high-speed elevated expressway to an at-grade “parkway” with a speed limit of 45 mph.
Others objected to the increased number of interchanges on Johns and James islands, saying they would encourage new development along a highway that purportedly was designed to ease existing congestion.
Since its initial rejection of the project, County Council has been under increasing pressure to reconsider its opposition or, failing that, relinquish the project to the city.
County Council will meet Tuesday to hear a presentation on why the city of Charleston wants to assume control of the project, which has become a top priority for Mayor Joe Riley during his final term.
Council also will hear from opponents of the plan. No vote is scheduled Tuesday.
Meanwhile, we’ve heard that a plan is being developed to have a significant portion of the project work steered to so-called “disadvantaged business enterprises” in an effort to gain the support of some County Council members who have opposed it. In our view the 526 project needs to be dealt with on its own merits, not driven by a local stimulus program.
In a letter to the editor on this page, former U.S. Rep. Arthur Ravenel cites his recommendations for alternative road improvements to I-526, including extending the Betsy Kerrison Parkway. ( Mr. Ravenel, incidentally was one of the architects of the State Infrastructure Bank when he served in the state Senate.)
Given the rancorous nature of the debate, looking for agreeable options to the highly controversial I-526 project still makes a lot of sense.
If the SIB can help, it ought to.