Politics & Government

Charleston freeway project lurches forward. But does it come at Columbia’s expense?

A long-delayed freeway in Charleston has tied up road money that critics say could be used elsewhere, such as Columbia. This scene is on I-26 outside Columbia.
A long-delayed freeway in Charleston has tied up road money that critics say could be used elsewhere, such as Columbia. This scene is on I-26 outside Columbia.

A disputed freeway project in Charleston that for years has tied up more than $400 million in state road money lurched forward Tuesday after a legislative panel gave approval for preliminary work on the highway.

The vote by the Joint Bond Review Committee is significant because it gives the green light to spend $12 million of the state money for the project. The decision drew praise from road backers, who said the decades long effort to relieve traffic congestion in the state’s largest city and major tourist destination is finally moving ahead.

But Tuesday’s vote by the Joint Bond Review Committee to approve money for design, engineering and right-of-way work doesn’t guarantee the Interstate 526 extension will be constructed any time soon — if ever.

The S.C. Department of Transportation must come up with a revised cost estimate for the road -- now projected to cost $725 million -- and hold public hearings, a process that could take more than a year. The committee would have to approve spending the rest of the money. In addition, the freeway needs federal and state environmental permits, another potentially lengthy process.

And this week, the S.C. Coastal Conservation League sued to stop the project, arguing that Charleston County’s plan to use $300 million to match the $420 million in state funds is illegal. The league says the seven-mile long I-526 extension was not included in a package of road improvements voted on several years ago by the public.

Jason Crowley, who tracks the road project for the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, predicted it could take up to 10 years for the project to be built, even if environmentalists are not successful in stopping it through legal challenges.

Efforts to build the I-526 extension began in 2007, but disputes over whether it is needed have raged in Charleston County through the years, delaying the freeway. The failure to use the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank Funds has upset some lawmakers, who say the money has been frozen while other projects needed funding across South Carolina.

State Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said this week the money for the I-526 extension in Charleston could have been spent in other parts of South Carolina.

“My preference would be to take that money and use it to widen the interstates and highway system in this state,’’ Setzler told The State. “You are talking about major funds to widen interstates in this state to six lanes, but the impact it would have on the economy of this state would be important. It would bring in industry, and (help) businesses that already exist, people who are going to work, people who are going to school.’’

The Conservation League has been perhaps the road’s most ardent foe, saying the freeway will create sprawl and ruin ecologically rich wetlands. The road, which would extend the existing I-526 from U.S. 17 South across Johns and James Islands, is part of a road plan dating back about 40 years.

The Joint Bond Review Committee vote, however, is a sign of progress for freeway backers in Charleston. They say the road is badly needed to ease traffic congestion in a city that is exploding in growth and full of traffic clogs.

“This vote breaks substantial logjams,’’ said state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, a road booster. “There are other hurdles, but I think they are all manageable.’’

Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said building the road will relieve traffic congestion on U.S. 17 South and neighborhood roads that have become shortcuts for motorists trying to get around in the high-growth West Ashley-Johns Island-James Island area. Stavrinakis said people who visit Charleston, as well as local residents, will benefit from the I-526 extension.

“It is not a fix-all for traffic in Charleston, but it is a vital, vital part of a long-term plan that has been delayed for way too long,’’ he said after the meeting. “We need it completed, along with a lot of other projects. It will improve traffic conditions.’’

But the S.C. Coastal Conservation League’s lawsuit says Charleston County voters never approved spending the local sales tax money on the extension.

“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.”

Under current plans, 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 Coastal Conservation League suit names the DOT, the Infrastructure Bank and Charleston County.

Dana Beach, the league’s former director and ardent critic of the I-526 project, said roads flood routinely in Charleston as a result of sea level rise. Using some of the $420 million committed to the I-526 extension could have helped attack the problem, he said.

“People are grasping for a solution to deal with water, ’’ Beach said.