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After several failed attempts over the past two years Charleston County is again trying to resuscitate a decade-old agreement to complete Interstate 526.

This time, it involves a new funding plan the county is not sharing publicly, even though it contains millions in tax dollars.

At the direction of County Council Chairman Vic Rawl, the county recently submitted a new proposal to the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank board to cover the project's $330 million shortfall. 

County staff denied the newspaper's request to review the proposal, citing an exemption in the state Freedom of Information Act for governments to negotiate "contractual matters."

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The I-526 plan

Rawl said the three main funding sources are:

  • $62 million left over from the first half-cent sales tax fund. County voters approved the tax increase in 2006 to pay for transportation projects, but the plans didn't include the Interstate 526 extension.
  • $108 million in federal "guide share" dollars available for regional transportation projects.
  • $150 million in general obligation bonds issued by the county. Rawl didn't elaborate on how they would be paid off. 

Council members Herb Sass and Brantley Moody confirmed to The Post and Courier they were familiar with the plan but not all council members have been briefed on it.

Rawl said if the bank board is receptive, that's when it would be placed before council for a vote. Releasing the details to the public would jeopardize the negotiation, he said.

"There is really nothing for the public to know until there is a proposal that has been accepted by both sides," Rawl said. 

It would not take away money from other budgeted projects, he added.

The board hasn't responded. "We have no control over whether they will respond or if they will respond," Rawl said.

Bank board member Chip Limehouse, a former state representative for Charleston, said he hadn't reviewed the proposal but had been in touch with County Council members about it.

From what he's heard, the new proposal seems more concrete than previous ones. He's been a supporter of the project all along. 

"This might be the spark plug we've been looking for to get 526 moving again," he said.

The bank agreed a decade ago to pay for the highway extension across James and Johns islands, which at the time was expected to cost $420 million. When the price-tag rose to $750 million, the bank asked the county to come up with the difference. 

The county has been trying to convince the bank it can pay for it ever since, even after the board voted to unwind the project in 2016.

The funding proposal is similar to one County Council voted for about a year ago but that one didn't include half-cent money. When the pitch fell flat, the county asked the S.C. Supreme Court to find that the bank breached the contract and should be ordered to pay for the whole project.

The Supreme Court rejected the case in October.

If the board isn't willing to renegotiate, the county could pursue its claim in circuit court.

"There is a dispute as to whether we owe anything, and if so, how much. All those points are still up in the air," Rawl said. "Those are the discussion points contained in part of the financial proposal."

Rawl declined to say whether the county's latest pitch would be its final attempt to revive the plans.

Agencies involved in the project have spent about $10 million on permitting and buying rights of way.

"At some point in time, we will have to seek whatever relief we can from whatever source or process we can," Rawl said.

The highway extension has been controversial since its inception. Supporters maintain it's the key to fixing gridlock traffic across the county and would provide an important evacuation route. Opponents argue it would give rise to more development and would only fill up with traffic over time. Other projects would provide more relief for the money, they have said.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.