Charleston County Council is offering to create new tolls or a sales tax increase as potential funding sources that would help finish Interstate 526, although even they seem resigned the project that would finish the Charleston beltway appears increasingly unlikely to happen.
Councilmembers voted 5-3 Thursday to study how it could raise the funds necessary to complete its share of the roughly $750 million project, nearly a decade after it was first approved by the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (SIB) for much less money.
“There’s no project like 526 that will serve to reduce congestion and make it easier for us to get around,” Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said while urging the council to pass the resolution. The I-526 project that would link the interstate’s current terminus in West Ashley with downtown Charleston’s peninsula. Supporters hope the parkway across John’s Island and James Island would reduce congestion heading into the city.
At issue is a 2012 intergovernmental agreement that would have the SIB fund $420 million of the project, while the county would shoulder the remaining cost (estimated to be between $300-$350 million). But county officials have never liked that agreement and argue the state went back on its original pledge to fund the entire project. In February, SCDOT suspended pre-construction work on the project and set a March 30 deadline for the county to come up with its funding plan.
The resolution approved Thursday does not list a specific plan, but offers potential funding sources. These include a new sales tax referendum, a potential toll along the new section of I-526, along with ways to secure federal grant money.
But councilmembers made it clear they felt bullied into drafting a plan. “They’ve changed the rules specifically for Charleston County,” Councilman Dickie Schweers said during Thursday’s meeting. “I don’t know that there’s any other county that is having to pay for these types of roads.”
However, opponents say I-526 in its current form is unrealistic at this point. “This has now become the most expensive project that’s ever been on the books in South Carolina,” Councilwoman Colleen Condon said. “I think our priority ought to be working with the SIB to look at reducing the scope to be a reasonable project.”
Even one of the project’s largest backers on the state level admitted it faces a difficult road at best in the current political climate. State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican who serves on the SIB, said he would only give the project a “20 percent” chance right now — and that’s if state and local officials get on the same page.
“At this point, it is what it is. We’re at an impasse,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “What we have now is a situation where the SIB is in the driver’s seat and the county is not… but we need to get some forward momentum. And if they say they’ve got to have $330 million on the table… well, to me, that’s something worth doing.”