Will city’s ‘Hail Mary’ save I-526 project? Seeks time to develop plan that may include toll option, sales tax

Interstate 526 now ends at Sam Rittenberg Boulevard in West Ashley.

It’s going to be a pivotal week for the completion of Interstate 526 across Johns and James islands, one that could either sound the project’s death knell or jump-start it with a toll road plan.

Charleston City Council on Tuesday will vote on a resolution to support asking for eight more months to develop a plan to cover the project’s more than $300-million shortfall. And that plan could include a toll road and a sales tax increase.

The highway extension also will be discussed Thursday by the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank Board. That group previously gave Charleston County until March 30 to come up with a solid plan to cover the long-stalled project’s shortfall or risk losing the $420 million the bank has set aside for building it.

The most recent estimate to complete the highway extension is $725 million.

City Council’s resolution asks the Infrastructure Bank board to give the city and county until Dec. 31 to explore the viability of raising half the shortfall from a sales tax increase and the other half from tolling the road.

But even Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, a project proponent who initiated the city’s resolution, called the city’s plan “a Hail Mary pass.”

Tecklenburg said he thinks the majority of council members will vote in favor of the resolution.

But the city is not directly involved in the project, which is being handled through a three-party contract between Charleston County, the Infrastructure Bank and the state Department of Transportation.

He also said state law would require the county to go to voters for approval to build a toll road and for the half-cent sales tax increase, but it wouldn’t allow the county to put both of them on the same ballot.

So city staffers are researching whether the city could take responsibility for the toll road portion of the plan. If so, that idea could be put before city voters.

It’s a complicated plan, Tecklenburg said, and it will involve answering a lot of legal questions. But he said the road is essential to alleviate traffic congestion and for public safety, and building it as a toll road is likely the only option for completing it. He hopes the Infrastructure Bank board Thursday grants the city and county the extra eight months to research the road, which has been in the works for decades.

“If we want to see 526 completed, we have to stand up and let the board know we will get the rest of the money,” Tecklenburg said.

Tecklenburg and County Council Chairman Elliott Summey plan to attend the Thursday Infrastructure Bank board meeting.

Bank board Chairman Vince Graham said the board will discuss how to move forward, but he offered no predictions. “We’ll discuss it in a public forum,” he said.

The project continues to face opposition from conservationists and some local residents who think it will harm the environment and promote sprawl.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League, sent a letter to County Council members Monday asking them to consider working with the Infrastructure Bank board and the DOT to scrap the current I-526 contract in favor of one that would direct the $420 million to higher-priority local and regional projects.

The Infrastructure Bank board previously said that wasn’t an option — that if the $420 million set aside for I-526 wasn’t used there, it would be distributed to other projects across the state.

But Chris DeScherer, a lawyer with the law center, said the leadership at the DOT and on the bank board has recently changed, so such a plan might be possible now.

Graham said the current project agreement must be honored and any discussion on its future “ventures into questions of law.”

Graham said no matter what happens at the board’s Thursday meeting, “we’re not going to just say ‘Forget you guys.’”

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