Charleston County pushing to manage I-526 completion

Some Charleston County leaders say they have the skills and experience to manage the completion of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands, but state Department of Transportation officials continue to balk at turning over management of the controversial project.

County Administrator Kurt Taylor sent a memo to County Council members last week making a case for the county to take over construction management of the $558 million project. Taylor’s memo was in response to concerns DOT commissioners raised at a Sept. 19 workshop.

The next step for the extension of the Mark Clark Expressway involves updating the project’s three-party contract, known as an Intergovernmental Agreement. In the project’s initial $420 million contract, Charleston County was the project’s sponsor, the DOT was responsible for building the road, and the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank was responsible for paying for it.

But Charleston County now wants more control of building the road, a change to which the DOT would have to agree.

DOT Commission Chairman John Edwards said he’s not willing to turn over such a large project to the county. “This is what we at DOT call a mega-project,” he said. “It’s a huge deal.”

And when it’s complete, the road will be the DOT’s responsibility, Edwards said. “If the DOT is going to take it over, it should be DOT-managed.”

Taylor said in his memo that the general steps needed to complete significant road projects are the same for small and large projects, and that the county has demonstrated success completing them.

For instance, Taylor stated, the county completed the:

$84 million Johnnie Dodds improvement project.

$36 million Palmetto Commerce Parkway project.

initial stages of the $26 million Bees Ferry Widening project.

And, he stated, some local DOT-managed projects are plagued with time-consuming changes and other delays. For instance, Taylor said, the Interstate 26 widening project a few years ago had 25 changes, which boosted the project cost by about $10 million.

County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said the DOT doesn’t actually build roads, it hires contractors to do that, just as the county would do. He’s certain the county is up to the task, he said, and he just wants the project to get started. “If it’s going to be the DOT,” he said, “we want them to get moving.”

Councilman Herb Sass said he also thinks the county can handle the project. The county would work hand-in-hand with the DOT, he said, and build the road to the department’s specifications.

And, it would hire an experienced contractor, such as Bobby Clair, who works for a company called HDR Engineering.

Clair is the DOT’s former director of engineering and special projects, and he guided the construction of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge project.

Sass said he’s not sure if Clair is available, “but that would be somebody I would think should be able to do the job.”

Clair made a presentation supporting the project to the Infrastructure Bank Board in August 2012. At the time, the bank board was being asked to approve another $130 million to $150 million for the project, because the estimated cost had increased. The bank board approved that increase, which now must be approved by the state’s Joint Bond Review Committee.

Councilman Dickie Schweers, an opponent of the I-526 extension project, said he doesn’t think the county has the expertise to build the road. “It’s a road like no other we have built,” he said. Much of it is elevated, it goes through wetlands, and includes two 80-foot-tall spans over the Stono River. “It’s an eight-mile-long bridge,” he said.

Edwards said the DOT Commission likely will discuss the I-526 project and the intergovernmental agreement at its Oct. 17 meeting, which will be held in Greenville.

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

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