Now that the "on" switch has been flipped again for long-delayed, much-debated, off-and-on effort to complete Interstate 526, Charleston County is preparing to spend millions.

The $3.16 million that County Council agreed to appropriate Tuesday is meant to cover just the county's 50 percent share of preliminary work on the road plan though June, the end of the government's financial year.

Going forward, the county has agreed to pay half the remaining, unspecified costs for preliminary engineering, land purchases, environmental mitigation and related costs.

The preliminary work to prepare for a final design and construction could take about 36 months, state Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall said last week.

The 7-mile extension of I-526 would connect the current end of the interstate in West Ashley near Citadel Mall with the end of the James Island connector at Folly Road, creating a new path from West Ashley through Johns Island to James Island.

The State Infrastructure Bank and the county agreed in January on a new contract to proceed with the project — a deal in which the state's share of the cost is capped at $420 million. The cost of extending the highway has not been updated since 2015, when the estimate was $725 million. 

The more than $100 million per mile cost is expected to have increased since then, and the county has not specified where its share of the total project funding will come from.

County Councilmen Henry Darby and Dickie Schweers opposed the new contract in January, and both voted against appropriating money for the project Tuesday.

"This is the beginning," Schweers said Tuesday. "This is $3 million that won't be used for existing projects that could use $3 million."

Council Chairman Elliott Summey said that's not the case. He said the county has $95 million left over from the first half-cent sales tax, and asked county Budget Director Mack Giles for confirmation.

“It’s not taking any money away from existing projects," Giles said.

He said the road projects from the first half-cent sales tax referendum are nearing completion, and money is set aside for those.

Summey said people who live in West Ashley and on Johns Island, James Island, Kiawah and Seabrook have been waiting too long for the interstate to be completed.

Schweers said that, nonetheless, the money the county plans to spend could be used for other purposes, of which there are many.

He then joined Darby on the losing side of a 7-2 vote to appropriate the $3.16 million.

The Coastal Conservation League, which opposes the interstate project, said the county "is going rogue with your tax dollars."

Steve Thigpen, the county’s transportation development director, said previously that a supplemental environmental impact statement will need to be completed because so much time has passed since the first one. 

“While that is happening, we’ll be working on the design," he said last week. "It will probably be a while, a year, year and a half, before there are any updates with the design to the public."

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Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com

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