526 Extension path.JPG (copy)

The path of the proposed I-526 extension would take the highway through, or along the edges of, several neighborhoods in West Ashley before crossing the Stono River. Lauren Petracca/Staff

For more than a decade, promoters and opponents have debated whether I-526 should be extended, (or completed, depending on your point of view), to Johns Island. We have hashed and rehashed whether stronger zoning can protect the island’s rural areas and traditional settlements in the face of increased development.

Opponents have warned that the highway would be the death knell of farming and open space. Supporters have proclaimed the lack of the highway a death sentence for residents fleeing oncoming hurricanes. (As former Mayor Joe Riley told the City Paper, bodies will be floating in the river without it.)

We have debated how much time the interstate would save residents on their way to work and how much additional development would follow in its wake. We have squabbled about backroom deal-making and disputed the percentages of residents who support and oppose the project.

In the interest of clarity and consensus, let’s put those issues aside for a moment. The debate can be boiled down to one subject — money. How much do we have to spend? How much more can we get? Should we spend it on I-526, or on something else? (The types of questions any family should ask about their budgets from time to time.)

Regarding how much we have: In 2006, the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) committed $420 million to build this section of I-526. This money, minus $30 million or so that has been spent on planning and rights of way, is still available for the project.

The projected cost of the road in 2015 was $725 million. According to DOT chief Christy Hall, the department will provide a new cost estimate in two years. For the moment, though, let’s use the old number to calculate the shortfall. It comes to about $300 million.

Where will the county find this $300 million? I-526 supporters on Charleston County Council recently told the STIB board that they can use proceeds from the county’s half-cent sales taxes, passed in 2004 and 2016. This may be true, but it is debatable.

When the county put the last sales tax on the ballot, they did not specify projects in the referendum. But they did pass an ordinance listing the projects to be built, and they circulated the list at the polls. (I personally received a copy of the list while standing in line to vote.) I-526 was explicitly excluded.

Still, unlike referendums, ordinances can be changed. It is likely that this question will be reviewed by the courts. But for the moment, let’s imagine the county is able to direct sales tax funds to cover the $300 million shortfall. What would the implications of that decision be?

A recent Post and Courier article, “City seeking to raise $2 billion to fix flooding,” is revealing. The newspaper detailed a forum designed to explore ways to protect the city from increasingly frequent flooding — flooding that threatens real estate worth hundreds of millions of dollars; flooding that jeopardizes the productivity of the region’s workforce and the operations of key employers, including such essential institutions as the Medical University of South Carolina; flooding that is depressing housing prices and livability, from East Side public housing to Murray Boulevard to the Church Creek watershed west of the Ashley.

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The article quotes Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who is an enthusiastic proponent of completing I-526. “It’s complex,” he says, “because given our needs, you have to look under every rock to find the finances in order to do what we need to do.” (In that vein, Mayor Tecklenburg last year suggested having a bake sale to help build I-526.)

Many things in life are complex. But this is not one of them. It is indisputable that flooding threatens the survival of this 350-year-old city. There  isn’t enough money under rocks or in bake sales to respond to this existential crisis.

Exactly the same funds available to complete I-526 can save the city. And they are the only sources adequate to do the job. The logic that allows County Council members to shift sales tax funding from sales tax projects, like the overpass at U.S. 17 and Main Road and the widening of S.C. 41 in Mount Pleasant, enables them to deploy the taxes in defense of homes, businesses and neighborhoods that flood.

Furthermore, the STIB board has consistently encouraged the county to renegotiate its I-526 grant, so that those funds, immobilized for more than a decade, can be applied to a project about which a consensus has been reached. That project is flood abatement.

The time is now, and the choice is clear. We can either underwrite the survival of Charleston, or we can build an eight-mile highway from Costco to Lowe’s. But we can’t do both.

Dana Beach is a conservationist and Charleston resident.

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