I-526 toll would require long and winding road

Interstate 526 currently ends at U.S. 17 in West Ashley.

It wouldn’t be easy to complete Interstate 526 across Johns and James as a toll road, says Mike Wooten, chairman of the state Department of Transportation Commission.

Here’s what would have to happen:

Charleston County must do a study, which would take about a year and cost about $1 million.

Then DOT would have to conduct public hearings presenting a toll road as an option for the long-stalled highway extension.

And then the county would have to create a tolling authority to manage the road, Wooten said.

The commission discussed the matter at its meeting Thursday at the request of state Rep. Chip Limehouse.

Limehouse, R-Charleston, a longtime supporter of the project, wrote to Wooten earlier this week asking him to consider using tolls to cover the project’s more than $300-million shortfall.

Toll roads are not popular in South Carolina. Only two — the Cross Island Parkway on Hilton Head Island and the Southern Connector in Greenville — currently have tolls.

The Hilton road has been successful, Wooten said, while the Greenville highway has had financial problems.

Completing I-526 as a toll road may not be the best option, Limehouse said, but it might be the only option to get it built.

The controversial project for years has sparked heated debates between some people who say its desperately needed to alleviate traffic congestion and others who say it will harm the environment, promote sprawl and not address the region’s biggest needs.

Wooten said the DOT has no role in paying for the project. That falls to the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank.

The bank has $420 million set aside for the highway extension, but its estimated cost has jumped to $725 million — which would make it the state’s most expensive infrastructure project ever.

The Infrastructure Bank board told Charleston County in December to come up with a plan for funding the shortfall by March 30 or risk losing the money currently available. The bank could consider the county’s response next week, and Wooten, a member of that board, said he will discuss the tolling option at that time.

Limehouse, who also is member of the bank board, said another possibility for getting a toll road approved is for Charleston County to take the matter to voters in a referendum in November.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” Limehouse said. “We’re in a box, but sometimes to get out of the box you have to think outside the box.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491.