Chas. City Council seeking more time to shape I-526 plan

Interstate 526 now ends at Sam Rittenberg Boulevard in West Ashley. File/Staff

It’s a long shot, but the city of Charleston is going to push a plan to complete Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands by building it as a toll road and asking county voters to approve a sales tax increase.

Charleston City Council voted 11-2 Tuesday to approve a resolution asking the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank for eight more months to develop a plan to cover the project’s more than $300 million shortfall. And that plan could include both a toll and a sales tax increase. Only Councilmen Mike Seekings and William Dudley Gregorie were opposed.

Some who voted in favor of the plan said they did so to buy more time to come up with a funding plan.

Supporters and opponents of the controversial highway extension — a project that has been in the works for decades — weighed in before the vote.

West Ashley resident Ledlie Bell said the road is desperately needed in this area, where the population is growing. “You control growth through zoning,” she said, not by refusing to build needed roads.

But civil rights activist Bill Saunders said a lot of people are going to continue to fight against I-526 because “it has no value for the people.”

The Infrastructure Bank board gave Charleston County until March 30 to come up with a solid plan to cover the project’s shortfall or risk losing the $420 million the bank has set aside for building it. The price has ballooned to an estimated $725 million.

City Council’s resolution asks the Infrastructure Bank board to give the city and county until Dec. 31 to explore the viability of raising half of that shortfall from a sales tax increase and half from a toll on the road.

But the city is not directly involved in the project, which is being handled through a three-party contract between Charleston County, the Infrastructure Bank and the state Department of Transportation.

The Infrastructure Bank board was scheduled to consider the city’s resolution and other I-526 matters at a meeting Thursday in Columbia, but Board Chairman Vince Graham said Tuesday that the meeting is canceled and will be rescheduled.

Even Mayor John Tecklenburg, a supporter of the project, has called the city’s plan “a Hail Mary pass.”

Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, who represents a portion of James Island, voted in favor of the resolution. “I struggled with I-526,” she said, “but I’ve come to understand the need.”

Wilson said she is not necessarily in support of a toll road or a sales tax increase, but added, “This simply is a way to buy us more time.”

Councilman Bill Moody, who represents a portion of West Ashley, said he also voted in favor of the resolution because it would give the city and county more time. He thinks it’s possible that the project could get more federal money if it were built as a higher-speed expressway instead of the planned low-speed parkway.

“I’m not committed to a sales tax increase or a toll road,” he said. “But I’m committed to completing I-526.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.