A South Carolina transportation funding agency indicated Thursday it no longer sees a viable path forward for finishing the Interstate 526 project outside Charleston.
The Transportation Infrastructure Bank’s board voted 4-1 to begin terminating the long-stalled project that would link the highway’s current end in West Ashley with downtown Charleston. Board members had given Charleston County a March 30 deadline to come up with a plan to fund its share of the project. But the county’s plan did not have specifics on how it would raise the massive amount of money needed, beyond a possible increase in the gas tax or making I-526 a toll road.
Lowcountry elected officials making the eleventh-hour pitch on behalf of I-526 expressed frustration after the vote. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg expressed frustration that the Infrastructure Bank had repeatedly changed its requirements for the more than $720 million project.
“They were founded by our state legislature years ago to help local government build necessary infrastructure projects in our state,” Tecklenburg told reporters after the meeting in Columbia. “They’ve shown us today that’s not what they’re about.”
Charleston County had entered into an intergovernmental agreement with the state Department of Transportation (SCDOT) to help build the project with the Infrastructure Bank’s help. The Infrastructure Bank eventually agreed to provide $420 million in funds, with Charleston County providing the rest. But problems developed after the project’s estimated costs ballooned to $720 million and the county had no realistic way to raise its share of the costs.
There were other factors at play, including objections by environmental groups and a post-recession switch in emphasis by the SCDOT away from new construction and into infrastructure repairs and improvements. “I just don’t know if it’s responsible for us to tie up that much road bonding capacity,” bank board member Joe Taylor, Jr., questioned during the meeting.
Board Chairman Vince Graham said the Infrastructure Bank would meet with SCDOT and county leaders in the next 60 days as it moves to scuttle the project. He also raised the possibility that some of the state funds could reimburse the $117 million the county has spent in preparation for the project.
The only board member to support the project was Charleston legislator Chip Limehouse. He is still not willing to consider the project dead. “I don’t view this as a nail in the coffin,” he told reporters after the meeting. “I view it as a bump in the road. Another opportunity, we are going to build I-526. Make no mistake about it.”