Toll could help pay for I-526 shortfall

The proposed path of the extension of Interstate 526.

Charleston County’s plan to break the logjam on the completion of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands came in several days late and many dollars short.

County Council voted 5-3 Thursday in favor of a resolution in response to a December ultimatum from the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank board. Council members Colleen Condon, Dickie Schweers and Joe Qualey were opposed.

Some state and local leaders said the county’s response wasn’t really responsive because it didn’t include a clear and specific financial plan for moving forward. Other council members said they have done everything they have been asked to do to move the project forward, and they are being bullied by the state Department of Transportation and the Infrastructure Bank board.

Thursday marked the first time council discussed I-526 since December, when the Infrastructure Bank board passed a resolution calling for the county by March 30 to submit a plan to cover an estimated $305 million to $353 million funding shortfall from “specified, dedicated funding sources.”

If the county didn’t meet the deadline, it was at risk of losing the $420 million set aside for the project. The estimated cost has risen to more than $700 million.

The resolution that council passed stated that while the project’s contract doesn’t require the county to submit a funding plan for the shortfall, it will, in the spirit of cooperation, provide a list of potential funding sources “that could be utilized if the county elects to provide additional funding.”

Those sources include: a toll road; a sales-tax referendum; and other federal, state and local funding sources. But the resolution doesn’t state how much money might come from those sources.

Jim Armstrong, the deputy county administrator, said the project was in the pre-construction phase, and was “close to being on schedule” until February. But in early March, the Infrastructure Bank and the Transportation Department suspended all work and contracts on the project.

Council Chairman Elliott Summey said the county, which has a three-party contract with those two groups to fund and build the road, wasn’t notified the work had been suspended. The county has done all it was asked to do, Summey said. “We’re being bullied.”

Councilwoman Colleen Condon, a longtime opponent of the project, said the county’s resolution doesn’t respond to the Infrastructure Bank board’s request. “We all know I-526 is dead, why are we doing something that kicks the can down the road?” Condon said. She also called Thursday’s meeting and the resolution “a big nonevent.”

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, is one of seven members of the Infrastructure Bank board and the only member of that body that currently is championing I-526.

He agreed that County Council wasn’t being responsive to the board. “But what the SIB asked for is unreasonable,” Limehouse said.

“More than $300 million is a high hurdle,” Limehouse said. “We don’t need a resolution from Charleston County Council, we need cold, hard cash.”

Limehouse also said the position the county finds itself in could push some people to “bring up the “T word,” referring to building the project as a toll road.

Toll roads are unpopular in South Carolina, Limehouse said, and he usually doesn’t support them. But building I-526 as a toll road, and charging a toll for a limited time until the road is paid for, might be one of the only solutions for the project.

It also remains unclear if the county’s response to the Infrastructure Bank board came too late.

The county missed its March 30 deadline to respond and instead voted on a resolution Thursday.

Summey on March 24 sent a letter to Vince Graham, the board’s chairman, asking for an extension until after April 7. Graham responded a day later and said an extension would require a vote by the entire board, which he will propose happen retroactively at its April 28 meeting.

With the extra time, Graham stated in the letter, the county’s response to the bank should “reflect the specificity and gravity properly due a plan for funding the county’s $305-$353 million share of an infrastructure project which would be the most expensive in the history of South Carolina.”

Limehouse said he will vote in favor of the extension, but he’s not sure what other board members will do.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg told Council Thursday that the city was behind the county’s effort to finish the project. But he didn’t say whether, or how much money, the city would contribute to the highway extension.

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