The completion of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands has hit more roadblocks, and getting around some of them could cost Charleston County taxpayers.
Contract negotiations are underway for the long-stalled $558 million project. But to move forward, the county will have to agree to take control of and maintain 33 miles of state roads that fall within its borders. It also will have to identify an additional $33 million in state road-improvement projects that it must complete to satisfy a local match requirement.
The state Department of Transportation Commission in December voted in favor of a plan to update a contract for the extension of I-526, a move that drew much fanfare. It was the project's first concrete step forward in a year.
But it hasn't turned out to be much of a big step. Four months later, the contract still isn't complete, not even the DOT's portion.
The controversial project can't move forward until the three-party contract, known as an intergovernmental agreement, is updated. In its 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 wanted more control of building the road, and the price estimate had climbed to $558 million.
Jae Mattox, the DOT's new manager of the I-526 project, said the department has reached its road maintenance capacity in Charleston County and can't take on any new roads. In order for the DOT to take the I-526 extension into its system when the project is complete, the county must agree to take over and maintain the 33 miles of state roads.
County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said county officials have sent a list of roads they are willing to take over to the DOT for approval, but they haven't yet heard if the list is acceptable.
It includes the Glenn McConnell Parkway and Bees Ferry Road, Pryor said.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican who strongly supports the completion of I-526, said, "I don't have heartburn over that particular item. The DOT can't afford to maintain the roads they have, much less new ones."
Mattox said he'll be the DOT contact for I-526 even if Charleston County is allowed to take over management of the project and hires a contractor to design and build it.
Mattox took over for longtime project manager David Kinard, who left the DOT in November to become a program manager and associate vice president at HDR Engineering.
Bobby Clair, the DOT's former director of engineering and special projects, also works at HDR.
Clair made a presentation supporting the completion of I-526 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 still has not been approved by the state's Joint Bond Review Committee.
A few County Council members have said Clair, who guided construction of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge project, would be an excellent choice to lead the I-526 construction process.
Pryor said he hopes Clair ultimately applies to manage the project. "They are experts," he said of HDR. And a private company will be able to build the project more quickly because it would face fewer bureaucratic steps.
Clair and Kinard did not respond to voice mail messages left last week at HDR.
Infrastructure Bank hurdles
Limehouse serves on the Infrastructure Bank Board and the Joint Bond Review Committee, two more groups that must approve aspects of the I-526 project.
He said several issues have slowed down the bank board's approval of the contract, including:
The county and the DOT have not included the bank board in recent meetings.
The board wants the contract to specify that it must sign off on changes to the project.
The board wants the contract to more clearly state that the DOT has final approval over all aspects of the project, even if a private contractor builds it. Essentially, the DOT must "manage the manager."
The language requiring the DOT to accept the road into the state system once it's complete must be firmer.
Limehouse also said that the county previously agreed to complete $117 million in improvements to state roads as a local match for the project. But the bank board now wants the county to contribute an additional $33 million in road projects.
Limehouse said the additional $130 to $150 million for I-526 that the bank board approved in 2012 still must get final approval from the state's 10-member Joint Bond Review Committee.
He's not sure whether other members of the committee support I-526, he said. But he does. And state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, a Florence Republican and the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has indicated he supports it, Limehouse said. "That's not hurtful."
Limehouse also said that even though the contract process is moving slowly, the county is making progress on the required environmental permits and acquiring the necessary right-of-way property.
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.
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