Interstate 526

The James Island connector (foreground) currently terminates at Folly Road but would extend on toward Johns Island and West Ashley under a plan currently in the works. File/Staff

Charleston County made its case Wednesday that it has enough money from its half-cent sales taxes to come up with the $305 million it's projected to need to extend Interstate 526 from West Ashley to James Island.

State lawmakers reviewing the controversial project appeared to agree, but they stopped short of taking a vote.

The state's Joint Bond Review Committee has been scrutinizing a new agreement between the county and the state to resume work on an estimated $725 million project. Last month, state officials defended the deal by noting the county has agreed to assume most of the risk.

On Wednesday, the county made its case through its financial adviser, Walter Goldsmith, manager of First Tryon Advisors, and County Attorney Joe Dawson.

"The punchline of this presentation is we believe there will be sufficient revenue to fund this project,” Goldsmith said, adding that conclusion is based on a worst-case scenario of slower-than-expected tax collections and no other outside money being found.

The presentation noted the county is one of only 46 counties with a AAA credit rating by all three credit agencies, and state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, noted the county's population, per capita income and tax revenues have shown strong growth in recent years.

Stavrinakis also noted the county could use other sources aside from the sales tax, if needed.

"I agree there are a lot of counties in South Carolina that couldn’t handle a $300 million commitment on a road project," he said, "but there is no doubt Charleston County is capable of it.”

State Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, asked Dawson if the county expected to be sued over the project.

Dawson said he was not, but added, "I am aware of a lot of special interests who believe the project should not move forward. I have not received a letter from a law firm saying, 'If you don’t discontinue this contract, we will sue you.'”

The Coastal Conservation League's attorney has sent the state a detailed letter questioning the deal, and Jason Crowley of the environmental nonprofit sat in on Wednesday's meeting. 

The county's presentation made no mention of how using sales tax money would impact other potential sales tax projects, and Crowley said after the meeting that completing Interstate 526 would jeopardize funding for other projects planned in North Charleston, West Ashley and Mount Pleasant, as well as needed resiliency and drainage projects.

"Instead, every cent is going toward a road that will go from one place that floods to another place that floods," Crowley said.

After adjourning Wednesday's hearing, Alexander said the panel likely will reconvene sometime within the next month to discuss where to go from here.

The county's presentation made it clear that it doesn't think the Joint Bond Review Committee needs to approve the new I-526 deal, but state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, has said that it does.

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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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