Charleston County can find the money to pay for the rest of I-526 across James and Johns islands. That’s the message county representatives conveyed in depth at a special subcommittee meeting of the legislative Joint Bond Review Committee on Wednesday.
And it’s true.
Coming up with the at least $305 million the county will need for its portion of the at least $725 million project hasn’t ever really been the problem. Rather it’s a question of what other needs might suffer, and whether the money could be spent more effectively on other improvements.
On the latter point in particular, Charleston County Council has been unable to offer a compelling justification for this project in the many years during which it has been contemplated.
According to county officials’ presentation on Wednesday, the plan for 526 remains to use funds from the 2004 and 2016 half-cent sales taxes that voters approved to pay for a combination of road projects, mass transit and Greenbelt investments.
Spending that money on 526 is underhanded at best, considering that County Council had rather explicitly stated on several occasions prior to the vote on the second half-cent sales tax that it would not be used to pay for the controversial project.
More recently, County Council Chairman Elliott Summey has said that using half-cent sales tax funds for 526 wouldn’t mean cutting other projects, though that math is optimistic to say the least.
In any case, Greenbelt and mass transit funding must be strictly off limits.
And County Council’s confidence is even more perplexing considering that the $725 million cost to build 526 is an outdated estimate. The state Department of Transportation isn’t expected to have an updated budget for another two years.
It’s unlikely that the new cost estimate will be lower, and Charleston County will be legally obligated to cover the difference if it is higher.
In its January agreement with the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank, County Council also agreed to cover any cost overruns and legal fees for the 526 project.
In other words, County Council has offered a blank check, which ought to alarm taxpayers given its checkered history of successfully managing other recent projects.
So yes, Charleston County can almost certainly pay for its portion of the 526 project. It has a spotless credit record, a growing population and a steady stream of transportation sales tax revenue. Even if the effort goes way over budget, there’s probably money to be found.
But that doesn’t mean that spending effectively unlimited county resources on a single stretch of road is a good use of taxpayer dollars. In fact, it’s a distinctly unwise one.