Those wondering when construction might begin on Interstate 526 from Citadel Mall to James Island will just have to keep wondering, but a top state official said preliminary work could wrap up within three years.
The controversial $720 million project is on again after Charleston County Council and the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank signed a new deal last month.
The move revived environmental and permitting work, which had been placed on hold, said Jim Armstrong, deputy county administrator for transportation and public works.
Specifically, the state Department of Transportation is contacting the environmental consulting firm that had been working on the project and plans to amend its contract to let it get back on the job, he said.
DOT Secretary Christy Hall said the agency's project team has been told to resume work on preliminary activities that would get the project ready to go to construction.
"These preliminary activities are expected to take approximately 36 months," she said. Once the permits are in hand, the final design and construction can begin.
The consulting firm also will put together a supplemental environmental impact statement since so much time has passed since the draft of the first one was done, Steve Thigpen, the county's transportation development director, said.
"While that is happening, we’ll be working on the design. It will probably be a while, a year, year and a half, before there are any updates with the design to the public," Thigpen said. "There may be some public meetings along the way.”
The project remains unique because while the state DOT will build it, Charleston County will be on the hook for any and all costs above the $420 million already pledged by the bank. It will run from the current end of I-526 near Citadel Mall, across Johns Island to where the James Island connector ends at Folly Road.
The most recent cost estimate of $720 million is a few years old, but Thigpen said it "will probably be a year or so before we do another cost estimate.”
Completing further environmental and design work will help the county and state answer important questions, such as:
- Is the parkway plan known as "Alternative G" still the best plan? It seemed to be back in 2012, but Armstrong said it will get a fresh look. That design called for a low-speed parkway with bicycle and pedestrian access, not a high-speed interstate, like the rest of I-526.
- Should it be constructed with a design-build approach? That's how the state built the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge: The approach calls for a single contract to design and construct the bridge. "That seems to be the best direction right now unless we identify something to change our minds,” Armstrong said.
- Will there be new environmental concerns? The project still has no permits in hand, and the upcoming work will determine its impact on wetlands, wildlife, cultural resources and the like.
- What additional right of way will need to be purchased?
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said he's happy that SCDOT has been re-engaged in the process after several years of things being placed on hold.
"I've got confidence they're going to move the project forward, and I feel in a much better position about it all," he said. "We’re ready to help in any way we can to help move it forward."
But others, such as state Rep. William Cogswell, R-Charleston, are interested to learn more about the total price tag and whether the county's covering that additional costs will affect other projects in other areas.
"I think it’s a reasonable and very serious concern," Cogswell said. While he hasn't been privy to conversation County Council members have had, "I suspect they will be more public about what they’re thinking. The sooner they can do that, the better. It will allay any questions and concerns people might have.”
Armstrong said it's difficult to estimate how long it may take the county to get a permit for the project and ultimately start construction.
"What I tell is people is we’re working through the process as soon as we can," he said, "but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Chloe Johnson contributed to this report.