Opponents of extending Interstate 526 are asking the courts to rule on whether the new deal struck between the state and Charleston County is legal.
The Coastal Conservation League and three county residents filed a lawsuit Monday asking the court to rule on the legality of three questions related to the I-526 deal, including:
- Did County Council break faith with voters by obligating 2016 half-cent sales tax money to the I-526 extension when the project was not listed in the ordinance that put the sales tax question on the ballot?
- Is it legal for the current County Council members to obligate future councils to allocate sales tax dollars to pay for the project?
- Are other technical procedures behind how the deal was approved in fact legal?
The plan to extend Interstate 526 from its current end at Savannah Highway near Citadel Mall across Johns and James island to the James Island connector had been shelved after its price tag rose from $420 million to more than $700 million.
But earlier this year, the county, S.C. Department of Transportation and the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank resumed preliminary work on the project after reaching a new cost-sharing deal. Those two state agencies also are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Under the new plan, the bank would pay no more than $420 million toward the project, and the county would have to pay the rest, including all legal costs. The county's share has been estimated at $305 million, but a new cost estimate for the total project might not be available until late 2020 at the earliest.
“It’s simple. Voters in Charleston County were asked to approve funding for specific projects. I-526 wasn’t one of them,” Conservation League Executive Director Laura Cantral said in a statement on the lawsuit. “We’re stepping in to hold elected officials accountable and protect taxpayers. Charleston County should not be allowed to disenfranchise its own voters.”
The other plaintiffs include West Ashley resident Abe Jenkins and James Islanders Renee Orth and Libby Smith. All voted for the 2016 half-cent sales tax increase but were unaware the money could be used for 526, as the county currently plans.
“Charleston County’s use of the sales tax for I-526 misrepresents the will of the voters," Jenkins said in a statement. "Our tax dollars should be spent on what we were told they would be spent on. Not entirely new projects without voter consent.”
Charleston County Council Chair Elliott Summey said Monday he wasn't surprised by the lawsuit, and he isn't worried about it either.
"It’s a publicity stunt for them (the Coastal Conservation League) to raise money,” Summey said. "I have to get my money from the State Infrastructure Bank. They get theirs from rich donors."
The defendants had little other immediate comment. Neither the country nor SCDOT comment on pending litigation, their respective spokesmen, Shawn Smetana and Pete Poore, said Monday.
Cantral said the league sees the legal action as a last resort.
The lawsuit comes as a powerful state committee has been reviewing the details of the new intergovernmental agreement to finish 526.
The state's Joint Bond Review Committee has not voted to approve the new deal, and the issue is not on its June 4 agenda. However, state Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, has chaired the committee's 526 subcommittee, and he said there's a chance it might come up.
When the committee discussed 526 at its most recent meeting last month, state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, a Charleston Democrat who is one of the project's leading supporters, called for a vote to approve the deal. He appeared to have enough support, judging by public comments of other committee members.
However, state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, adjourned the meeting before a vote could be held.
Leatherman and other state lawmakers have said they feel the state needs to review and approve the new agreement, but Summey said the county's position is that is not necessary.
The county and state Department of Transportation currently are undertaking preliminary work to get the necessary federal permits for the project. That work is expected to wrap up in late 2020 or early 2021, when there will be new public hearings, an updated road design and a new cost estimate.