The public can’t yet scrutinize the latest unrealistic attempt by Charleston County Council to prove to the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank that it has $330 million to contribute toward the $750 million cost of completing I-526. County officials denied a Post and Courier request to review the plan citing contract negotiations.
But county taxpayers almost certainly won’t like it. The public hasn’t approved any of the three funding sources council Chairman Vic Rawl recently said he hopes to use to resurrect the long-stalled project.
First, there’s $62 million left over from the first half-cent sales tax passed more than a decade ago by county voters. That money isn’t really left over, of course, since not all of the projects planned have been completed.
And money from the new half-cent tax should be off the table because 526 was explicitly left off the list of projects voters approved in 2016.
Then there’s $108 million in federal “guide share” money for transportation infrastructure. That money isn’t exactly available either, since it’s part of the same pot of money that the tri-county area gets to help fund all of its transportation projects.
And spending that much on 526 would use up all of the region’s guide share money for the next six years or so.
Then there’s $150 million in bonds, which would have to be paid off with future taxes either at the expense of other projects or through a tax hike — neither of which is a palatable option.
Effectively, the county has as much money for I-526 as it always has, which is to say zero, at least without borrowing from other, more crucial efforts.
“Does this take away from other projects? Yeah,” Mr. Rawl said Tuesday. “But that’s true about any money.”
Even if the SIB were to allow Charleston County to proceed, which it shouldn’t, there are at least a decade’s worth of hoops to jump through before the project is completed.
No permits have been issued for a project that will cross significant wetlands and impact multiple neighborhoods. It’s going to be a long and arduous process. And there’s no guarantee that the estimated $750 million price tag will stand after years of inevitable delay.
In other words, 526 can’t offer short-term relief. And given the examples of dozens of other cities around the U.S. that have built new freeways only to see traffic congestion worsen, it’s not likely to offer long-term relief either.
County Council’s obsession with 526 is disappointing. Several other projects — most notably the so-called pitchfork on Johns Island, which the county has delayed despite city pressure — would provide comparable traffic relief at far less cost to county taxpayers.
Then there are even more transformative efforts, like a planned bus rapid transit route between Summerville and downtown Charleston, that rely heavily on county funding and support.
The money the county intends to spend on 526 could build as much as 20 more miles of bus rapid transit line, doubling the planned system and creating a real transit network for the region.
It could put separated bike lanes along almost every major road in the county. It could triple or quadruple the frequency of CARTA buses for years. It could fund dozens of projects that could have a true impact.
But too many on County Council remain single-minded in their pursuit of a massively expensive, massively complex boondoggle, Their time would be better spent using money the county already has for projects voters have approved.