As the state highway commission takes up I-526 again today, there are still questions about the costly, controversial project. Certainly, the public has questions and concerns, if not the local politicians who have continued to support it in the face of opposition.
Some of the answers could be spelled out in the intergovernmental agreement by which the DOT and Charleston County would assume varying responsibilities for its construction, management and maintenance. As of late yesterday afternoon, however, a DOT spokesman said the document was not complete.
Will the document be available for public review before the vote? Considering that it will probably be unique in state annals, in its division of project authority, it should be.
Certainly, I-526 and the details surrounding plans for its completion continue to be of intense public interest. Indeed, the public turned out by the hundreds to oppose plans to extend the highway across Johns and James islands.
Opponents wanted money spent to improve existing roads on Johns Island instead of a costly highway loop that is bound to increase development pressures there. And briefly they had the support of Charleston County Council.
But council backed off when the State Infrastructure Bank turned down its suggestion for alternate road improvements. Indeed, the SIB said the county would have to repay $11 million in project costs if I-526 didn’t go forward.
For local taxpayers, later developments can only have heightened their concerns.
For example, the county could be responsible for cost overruns to the project. (Cost projections already have increased from $420 million to $558 million.) And there are anticipated payments of extra compensation to adjacent landowners.
Council promised extra compensation to get the project approved by a 5-4 vote last December. County officials now appear to be backpedaling on the compensation issue. Nevertheless, $8.5 million in claims have been submitted so far.
County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor recently insisted that the county will be able to successfully manage the project, and bring it to completion within budget.
But that assertion is clouded by his previous remark that he would be willing to start the project with available funds, and, “If I run out of money, I’ll just stop where I’m at.”
That’s probably not an option since federal highway officials aren’t likely to give the requisite support to a project that terminates at an arbitrary point mid-route. Apparently, additional money would have to come from the county or the State Infrastructure Bank, which has handled most of the financing so far. The DOT has made it very clear that it doesn’t want to use its scarce resources to supplement the project. The DOT operates under a legislative mandate that requires it to focus on priority projects. That’s a reasonable condition for an agency with a $29 billion shortfall for needed projects, and inadequate sources of revenue to catch up.
Today the commission is scheduled to hear from two important supporters of the I-526 extension: House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce head Bryan Derreberry.
Commissioners should ask them why they believe the state should build a $528 million project that isn’t ranked on the state’s priority list.
After all, there are dozens of projects that the DOT has determined are more important by an objective ranking formula. Some of those projects are right here in the Charleston metropolitan area, including improvements to I-26. And I-26 is expected to require even more work when port traffic increases following completion of the Panama Canal widening.
The I-526 extension always has had powerful supporters who have helped keep the project alive, to the extent that the project is now starting to have the scent of a done deal. But it’s still not clear exactly how the deal will finally get done, exactly why, and who will be left holding the remaining tab.
The highway commission is ultimately responsible for the state highway system. It should take the opportunity today to shed what light it can on plans and expenses for this long-disputed project.