When Lilla Ujvarosky took her dog for a walk in West Ashley's Citadel Woods neighborhood late Thursday morning, the only noises in the air were the chirping of birds.

"This is what we wake up to," she said. "This is a very quiet neighborhood."

That would certainly change if Interstate 526 is extended, running directly behind her house. But when Ujvarosky and her husband bought that house last summer, plans to extend I-526 were considered dead and many thought the road project would not return — until it did, in January.

Now, she worries about the impact on her quiet neighborhood and on the value of her family's new home.

The I-526 extension connecting the interstate's current end at U.S. Highway 17 in West Ashley across Johns Island to the end of the James Island connector at Folly Road, has been an on-and-off project for decades, leaving some homeowners along its path confused and frustrated.

“We know this project has been a little bit difficult to follow from the citizens’ perspective," said S.C. Secretary of Transportation Christy Hall.

In places, new homes were built directly in the path of the planned road only to be purchased by the state as "hardship acquisitions" because the owners couldn't resell them. The state has spent more than $30 million buying homes and property — costs that are part of the estimated $725 million price tag for the 7-mile extension.

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Tim Henderson, SCDOT regional administrator, on Feb. 14, 2019, walks through the yard of a vacant home the state purchased in 2013 for $1.6 million. The house on James Island is in the path of Interstate 526. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

While a relatively small number of homes were directly in the road's path — something that could still change — a large number in many neighborhoods would be very close to the interstate if it is built as planned.

In West Ashley, between Highway 17 and the Stono River, the extended I-526 would run through or along the edge of Citadel Woods, Oakland, Stone Creek, Air Harbor, Waterway South and Battery Haig.

On Johns Island, the road is expected to run between Headquarters Plantation and Rushland, with two connections to River Road before continuing to James Island.

“I believe that, even though some people will have a new road in their view, the majority, if not all, of the homes in the area the new road will access will see their property values increase,” said Don Ball, a resident of Headquarters Plantation.

“In addition, for someone like me who travels daily to North Charleston, I could see my miles driven to work monthly drop from about 500 miles to about 200 and the time I spend commuting decrease from 18-20 hours down to 8 or 10 hours,” he said.

On James Island, the most recent plan calls for the road to run through the edge of James Island County Park, close to the Terrabrook subdivision, then just north of Ellis Creek to the connection at Folly Road.

Despite years of planning, the exact path of the road remains uncertain, leaving residents unclear about what to expect.

“We’ll do a reevaluation of those alternatives (for extending I-526) based on updated traffic information and go back to the public," Hall said.

That means the most recent plan, known as Alternative G, could change. That plan was chosen as the "preferred alternative" by the S.C. Department of Transportation in 2010, and Charleston County embraced that plan in 2012. It called for a road seen as more of a parkway than a highway, with a 45 mph speed limit and connections to some existing streets.

Hall said she expects the first public hearings about different alternatives to be held in late 2020.

“We’ll be updating the traffic and environmental studies between now and then," she said.

I-526 project (copy)

The idea of extending Interstate 526 was first conceived in 1972 and has floundered since the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank agreed to build it in 2007, when its estimated cost was $420 million. DOT Director Christy Hall said Friday the most recent estimate places the price tag at $725 million. File/Staff

For now, even the funding of the project remains uncertain, with state approval of a deal between Charleston County and the State Infrastructure Bank still pending. That deal calls for the state to pay $420 million, with the county covering all remaining costs.

“Right now, I have every reason to believe $725 (million) is a good number" for the total cost, Hall said.

In Citadel Woods, longtime residents Tom and Helen Buckley have been watching the I-526 project come and go since they moved there in 1994. Even then, the road project had been planned for about a decade, Tom Buckley said.

Helen Buckley grew up in West Ashley, in another neighborhood near Savannah Highway. It was more rural than suburban then, a place where her brother would shoot squirrels with a BB gun and her mother would cook them.

"I lived here when Savannah Highway was two lanes," she said. "We know places grow, but it feels like we're losing our charm."

Still, Helen Buckley said new roads are needed, and she and her husband have long expected I-526 to be extended. She's not worried about the road, which would be built one street away from her home, and said she hopes it will improve traffic.

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Motorists approach the end of I-526 in West Ashley February 12, 2019. Brad Nettles/Staff

Ujvarosky, whose new home backs up to the path of the planned highway extension, wondered if property owners will be compensated if their homes drop in value because of the road work and the noise.

“We would look to the county to see if that was something they would want to consider," Hall said.

In 2012, the previous time the project was moving forward, Charleston County Council narrowly voted in favor of compensation for decreases in property value for residents within 1,000 feet of the road.

Like the plan for the road design, that issue would need to be revisited.

Looking ahead — as state lawmakers continue to debate the funding agreement with the county — here's what's expected to come next, according to Hall:

  • DOT will update environmental and traffic studies and prepare for public meetings about road alternatives in late 2020.
  • Once a preferred alternative is chosen, DOT will develop a new cost estimate, then see if Charleston County and the State Infrastructure Bank want to proceed.
  • Next, the state would seek federal approval, which could take six to 12 months.

Together, those steps could take about three years. Then, the state could move toward construction.

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The on-ramp at the West Ashley end of Interstate 526, at U.S. Highway 17, on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Meanwhile, despite the uncertainty about potential changes to the road plan, the state is once again considering purchasing properties that the owners can't sell because they are in the path of a highway.

"We have a little more than $6 million in the bank and are moving forward with necessary background work for right-of-way hardship acquisitions," Hall said.

She said the state is considering buying two more residential properties at their owners' request, but she declined to say where they are.

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Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com