State moves to take over I-526

The state slid into the driver's seat Thursday of the stalled Interstate 526 project on James and Johns islands.

"This project has been languishing for quite some time. It couldn't move any slower," said Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, a State Infrastructure Bank board member. "We're taking the project from Charleston County and we're moving it back to the state.

"Quite frankly, I think County Council would be glad to get rid of it."

In a unanimous bank board vote, responsibility for the $420 million project was shifted from the county to the state Department of Transportation, subject to the county and DOT signing off on the change, he said.

"A project of this magnitude should have been with the DOT to begin with," he said.

Limehouse attended the meeting by phone at his Cumberland Street office, where one bank board member could be heard during the meeting stating that the goal of the action was to keep the project on track and moving forward.

The county has received $11 million so far for I-526 construction, money it will not be required to pay back unless it takes action to block building the four-lane highway, board members said.

Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said he had no immediate comment on the vote Thursday by the bank board. Pryor said he wanted to receive something official from the bank detailing its board vote on I-526 and give county legal staff time to review it.

DOT spokesman Pete Poore said he couldn't comment for the same reasons.

"We want to see everything in writing with all the details. I'm assuming this will have to go to the commission," Poore said.

The State Infrastructure Bank was established in 1997 to select and assist in financing major qualified projects exceeding $100 million, according to its website. It provides loans and other financial help for constructing and improving highway and transportation facilities necessary for public purposes, including economic development.

Kate Parks of the Coastal Conservation League said the bank board vote on Thursday was "entirely contradictory" to the purpose of the bank.

"This is a power grab by the state and infrastructure bank to force something on the county and community and its residents that have overwhelmingly objected," Parks said. "Local governments, permitting agencies, residents of Charleston County have all objected to this project."

Before the vote, state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, a bank board member, expressed concern about financially strapped DOT taking on primary responsibility for completing I-526.

"Lord knows, they've got enough problems now. I just don't want to see us do anything that would add to that," he said.

The 8-mile-long, four-lane highway would include five miles of bridges, including two 80-foot-tall spans over the Stono River. The project would connect Folly Road at the James Island connector with I-526 where it intersects U.S. Highway 17.

Limehouse said that he is passionate about preserving the islands.

"I am torn like everyone else. I would love no more roads. That is not a practical solution," he said.

Opponents of finishing I-526 have worried about resulting out-of-control development that would destroy Johns and Wadmalaw islands' rural character. Limehouse said the area can be protected through measures, such as zoning, planned unit developments and impact fees.

He said the new road is vital for hurricane evacuation.