Partial completion of I-526 extension unlikely without guaranteed funding

Interstate 526 now ends at Savannah Highway in West Ashley.

Some local leaders are pushing for building part of the Interstate 526 extension, but it’s unlikely it will happen unless they can show how they will pay for the entire project.

The plan for the completion of I-526 was to extend the road 8 miles, from where it ends at U.S. Highway 17 in West Ashley, across Johns and James islands to the James Island Connector. That would make a loop around Charleston.

But the project has stalled since 2012 over disputes about updating the road’s three-party contract between the state Department of Transportation, the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank and Charleston County. And during those disputes, the estimated cost of the project continued to rise.

Local and state leaders who support the road would like to at least partially build it with money available now.

The DOT in 2012 upped the estimated cost of the road from $420 million to $558 million. But state Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican and a member of the Infrastructure Bank board, earlier this month said he has been told by DOT officials the latest estimate to complete the road is $720 million. The bank is funding the project.

According to the DOT, it is the department’s understanding that federal guidelines require there be a “reasonable availability of funding” for the entire project, before the county can move ahead with building a portion of the road.

Limehouse, who has been pushing hard in recent weeks to help the project move forward, said $420 million is available now. Another $130 million to $150 million possibly will be available in the future, he said. But that leaves the project $150 million short.

Limehouse said he thinks that the argument against partially building the road is “a red herring” pushed by opponents who want to stop the controversial project. “We have a reasonable availability of funds for most of the project,” Limehouse said. If the final estimate is $720 million, Charleston County will have to work with the Infrastructure Bank to find alternative funds to make up the shortfall. “There is other revenue out there we haven’t begun to explore,” he said. “This is the bottom line. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Limehouse also said he blamed the hold-ups on Charleston County Council. The Infrastructure Bank expects the county to agree to cover the cost of overruns and legal fees, but so far, council has been reluctant to agree to do that. “Until the county takes ‘yes’ for an answer and takes the existing money,” he said “we can’t even think about the deficit money.”

The highway extension always has been controversial. Proponents have said it’s desperately needed to relieve traffic congestion while opponents have said it will harm the fragile coastal environment and promote more development, especially on Johns Island. In the end, they say, it will create more traffic than it will alleviate.

Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, a strong opponent of the project, said he thinks the federal language is very clear on the matter. “They can’t move forward unless the entire project is reasonably likely to be built,” he said.

He’s certain that simply building a bridge and extending the road over the Stono River onto Johns Island wouldn’t be allowed under federal rules, he said. The plan to partially build the road “points at the underlying goal of the political proponents to promote more development on Johns Island.”

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