September 19, 2014

$558 million extension of I-526 moves forward

Proposed map of completion of I-526 from West Ashley, through Johns Island and onto James Island.

Proposed map of completion of I-526 from West Ashley, through Johns Island and onto James Island.

The extension project for Charleston’s Mark Clark Expressway cleared its latest hurdle Thursday as the S.C. Department of Transportation commission unanimously approved an intergovernmental agreement (IGA), allowing it to proceed.

But with no permits and a determined opposition, it is unclear how quickly the project will progress.

The project to expand Interstate 526 has been in the works since 2007, and the latest DOT vote was for a revised plan that makes Charleston County more responsible for the road building process  – something that supporters say is the best way for it to move forward.

S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, who represents Charleston, spoke on behalf of the expansion.

“The road is needed, it’s wanted and it’s funded we just have to make sure it’s done right. This new IGA clearly lays out responsibilities and it accomplishes that important decision that must be made,” Harrell said as he urged commissioners to vote in favor of approval.

DOT does not fund the $558 million project, but had to approve the agreement. The project will be funded by the State Infrastructure Bank and local money. So far, Charleston County has invested more than $100 million on the project, Harrell said. DOT also will have to approve future plans.

The extension would link the I-526′s dead end at Highway 17 in West Ashley through to Johns Island, and then over to James Island and its connector to the Charleston peninsula.

Supporters say the I-526 extension will reduce congestion south and west of Charleston. Harrell said many of the roads would see a reduction by half in the vehicles traveling on it once the project is complete.

“Absolutely it’s needed. 526 was always meant to be completed,” Harrell said during the meeting. The interstate was first conceived in 1970. “Charleston is growing at three-times the national average … completing 526 won’t suddenly create urban sprawl in the area — that’s already happened at a staggering rate.”

But not everyone is convinced the project will be the best bang-for-the-buck in alleviating congestion.

Coastal Conservation League Executive Director Dana Beach was the sole dissenter speaking at Thursday’s meeting.

“To take the funds that could be used to deal with these problems and then to spend them on two new bridges to Johns Island is not just dumb, it’s catastrophic. And it is a catastrophic failure of leadership for the environment, for the quality of life and for economic development in the region and in the state,” he said during the meeting.

Beach told South Carolina Radio Network that extending 526 not only isn’t the only option, but it is an expensive, ineffective option. He said the half-billion dollars slated for this project could be better applied to improving traffic signals and connectivity in neighborhoods.

“Every day we see more and more pressure on the existing transportation system and that will be the thing that will eventually force the issue (as 526 is years from being completed),” Beach said. “The public will say, ‘Enough — a half a billion dollars? We need it …

“We are making a choice just like any household makes: do you buy a new car or do you buy a new swimming pool? And we’re talking about buying a swimming pool on credit.”

Beach vowed to tie up the project in litigation as the project begins applying for permits. He said initial documents on the project received condemnation from state and federal governments, putting the project back at “ground zero.”

“These permits will take years to development. We’re going to be involved in the development and they are so far away from being approved. Even if they received approval for the permits — which is unlikely — there is an appeal process and that adds additional years to the timeline,” Beach said.