Cost issues keep I-526 in slow lane

Interstate 526 now ends at U.S. Highway 17 in West Ashley.

— Interstate 526 could be completed in two phases, with the first phase taking the road from where it ends now in West Ashley to Johns Island, state Department of Transportation officials said Monday.

But that’s only if the ongoing fight over who will cover cost overruns and legal fees gets resolved.

Those issues have stalled the process of updating the $558 million project’s three-party contract between the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank, Charleston County and the DOT. Several members of all three groups thought the contract update, which has been in the works for more than two years, would move forward at the bank board’s meeting Monday. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, lawyers representing each group will meet and come back with a proposed contract in no more than 120 days.

“I was surprised and frustrated” about another delay, said Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey. “The lawyers have been tasked to do this for more than two years. It feels like someone has their foot on the clutch, like we’re stuck in neutral,” he said.

Summey said the county will not agree to cover the cost of project overruns or legal fees related to the environmental permit process. Those are project costs and should be covered by the bank, he said. The county possibly could contribute some money toward overruns from its half-cent sales tax program, he said, but not a lot. “If it’s a couple million, we could find a way to make it happen,” he said. “If it’s a hundred million, it would be impossible.”

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican and member of the bank’s board, said the group last fall approved new guidelines which stated it no longer will cover the cost of initial engineering work or litigation over permits. And everybody expects there to be lawsuits filed over I-526, he said. “We’re in uncharted waters,” he said of the contract process, but he thinks issues ultimately will be resolved and the road will be built.

Jae Mattox, I-526 project manager for the DOT, said there is now $420 million available for I-526 under the old contract. That would be enough money to extend the road from U.S. Highway 17 in West Ashley across Johns Island to just short of the Stono River. The permitting process for that portion of the road could be completed as early as the fall of 2016, with construction beginning in 2018, he said.

The DOT would get permits for the entire project, and work on the second portion, which would extend the road to the James Island connector, as soon as money is available, Mattox said.

The Infrastructure Bank’s board in 2012 approved an additional $130 million to $150 million for the I-526 project, but the board doesn’t yet have final approval for the money from the state’s Joint Bond Review Committee.

Mattox said each of the two phases is a standalone project, so it doesn’t matter if there’s a delay between the completion of the first phase and the start of the second.

I-526 for years has been a controversial project. Supporters say it’s needed to alleviate traffic congestion in a rapidly growing part of the county. But opponents say it will harm the environment and promote sprawl, ultimately creating more traffic than it will alleviate.

Myles Maland, a project manager for the Coastal Conservation League, a strong opponent of I-526, said building the road to Johns Island could bring even more traffic there, and put more strain on island roads. “Right now, there are more questions than answers,” he said.

Summey said that with each delay, the cost of the project and the possibility that it won’t be completed increases. He would prefer the entire road be built at the same time, but is open to building the roadway in phases. “To just see dirt turning would be nice.”