State Rep. Chip Limehouse is pushing hard to keep the Interstate 526 completion project alive by proposing it be built as a toll road, but it remains unclear if the plan can get federal approval.
Limehouse, a Charleston Republican and a longtime supporter of the project, wrote a letter Monday to Mike Wooten, chairman of the state Department of Transportation Commission, and asked him to consider using tolls to cover the project’s more than $300-million shortfall.
The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank has $420 million set aside for the project, but the estimated cost to build the road across Johns and James islands has jumped to $725 million — which would make it the most expensive infrastructure project in the state’s history.
Wooten said the commission will meet Thursday and likely get legal advice behind closed doors about the toll possibility. The issue isn’t on the agenda, he said, so it won’t be discussed publicly until the group’s next meeting.
Wooten also said he is not sure if tolling the highway extension would get federal approval.
“There are things you can toll and things you can’t,” he said. “Tolling is very complex. At what level would tolls turn people off and have them take another way?”
Wooten said he needs legal advice on whether tolling the road would be legal, if it would make sense and what would be involved in conducting a toll study. Such a study was conducted around 2004, he said, but things have changed dramatically since then.
Toll roads are not popular in South Carolina. Only two roads — 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.
In Charleston, the original John. P. Grace Bridge — the first bridge over the Cooper River — originally had a toll, but it was removed when the state bought the bridge in 1945.
Limehouse said a toll might be the only option to cover the project’s more than $300 million shortfall.
“It’s a big move, but something bold and audacious needs to be done to get the project moving.”
He also said he would like to see a toll in place only long enough to cover the project’s shortfall. “And if you don’t want to pay the toll, you can go around the other way. It will have less traffic than now.”
Coming up with a plan to cover the project’s funding shortfall is important because it could be reaching the end of the road.
The project currently has a three-party contract between Charleston County, the sponsor, the DOT, which would build it, and the Infrastructure Bank, which must pay for it.
In December, the Infrastructure Bank board passed a resolution calling for the county to submit a plan to cover the shortfall from “specified, dedicated funding sources” by March 30.
If the county didn’t meet the deadline, it was at risk of losing the $420 million set aside for the project. “Clearly, the county doesn’t have the wherewithal to do it by itself,” Limehouse said of having to cover the shortfall.
Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey and bank board Chairman Vince Graham both indicated Monday they needed time to review Limehouse’s letter.
Graham said the bank board will meet April 28 and consider whether to retroactively give Charleston County an extension on its response to the board’s resolution. The county didn’t respond until April 7.
It also will consider whether the county’s response qualified as a plan, Graham said, adding, “I was a little disappointed in it.”
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.