Conservationists sued Monday to stop a yet-to-be-built freeway project that for years has tied up more than $400 million in state highway money, which critics say could be better used on other road or bridge projects across South Carolina.
Plans call for combining the state highway money with $300 million in local sales taxes to extend Interstate 526 in Charleston County. But the S.C. Coastal Conservation League’s lawsuit says Charleston County voters never approved spending the local sales tax money on the extension.
Construction on the project has not started after more than a decade of disputes about the need for it. Momentum to build the road had been gaining recently, but Monday’s lawsuit could set back efforts to construct the freeway. That again raised questions about whether the money should be spent on road projects in other parts of the state.
“It’s simple. Voters in Charleston County were asked to approve funding for specific projects. I-526 wasn’t one of them,” said Laura Cantral, director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, in a news release. “We’re stepping in to hold elected officials accountable and protect taxpayers. Charleston County should not be allowed to disenfranchise its own voters.”
The $725 million road, which would include $420 million from the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank, would extend from the existing I-526 at U.S. 17 South, across Johns Island and onto James Island. The idea is to ease traffic congestion in Charleston, parts of which are gridlocked with cars during certain times of the day.
But critics say it would only worsen traffic congestion, increase sprawl and ruin ecologically sensitive tidelands. Disputes among politicians, environmentalists and others have raged for years, keeping the project in limbo.
In a news release, the conservation league says it’s asking a judge to determine whether agreements among government agencies to build I-526 are valid.
Under the plan, the Transportation Infrastructure Bank would pay $420 million of the project cost while the Department of Transportation would build the road. Charleston County, which has committed proceeds from a half-cent sales tax toward the road, would pay more than $300 million toward the cost, according to the league.
The Infrastructure Bank revived the I-526 project in October after the road’s future appeared in danger. The board negotiated a new agreement with Charleston and the S.C. Department of Transportation. Gov. Henry McMaster supports the road.
The suit names the DOT, the Infrastructure Bank and Charleston County. DOT spokesman Bob Kudelka said he could not comment on a pending legal matter. Efforts to reach officials with the Infrastructure Bank and Charleston County were unsuccessful.
The issue is of statewide interest for multiple reasons. The most obvious is that $420 million has been committed — but never used — for Charleston by the Infrastructure Bank as other areas of the state have sought money for road improvements. Environmental concerns in Charleston, one of South Carolina’s most scenic coastal areas, also are an issue.
Critics have complained that, rather than tying up money for the I-526 extension in a community divided by the need for the road, the money approved by the Infrastructure Bank could be used in Columbia, Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson or for other projects along the coast.
State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said the $420 million has gone unused for too long. He said the $420 million should be used to widen interstates that are too narrow and prone to traffic congestion, although it was unclear Monday whether redirecting the money could be done. Columbia officials in the past also have said they could use the money to relocate railroad tracks that lead to traffic tie-ups.
“I think there is tremendous need throughout the state of South Carolina, besides this project, including areas in the Midlands,’’ Setzler said. “We ought to take that money in the Infrastructure Bank and you ought to widen every interstate in this state. The road between Columbia and Charleston, I-26, for instance, gets backed up. Interstates are the lifeblood of the economy of South Carolina.’’
Dana Beach, the league’s former director and ardent critic of the I- 526 project, said some of the $420 million committed to the road could have been used to alleviate flooding in the Charleston area. Roads throughout the city routinely flood as sea level rises and storms blast the coast.
Beach said, however, that it’s hard to blame people in other parts of South Carolina who might want the money for their own road needs.
“This money has just been in suspended animation for more than a decade,” he said.