Charleston County has until March 30 to come up with a plan to pay $300-plus million to extend Interstate 526, a state agency said Tuesday.
If that deadline — or others — are not met, the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank could begin discussions about withdrawing the $420 million it has set aside for the decade-old project.
Withdrawal of that money would scuttle the controversial project.
Conservationists, who oppose extending I-526, greeted the bank board’s action as good news, adding the money earmarked for the project instead should go to repair the state’s existing crumbling roads and bridges.
When approved, in 2006, the $420 million in state money would have paid the entire cost to extend I-526 across Johns Island. The interstate now ends in West Ashley.
Now, however, after a decade of debate and opposition from conservationists, the project is expected to cost up to $773 million. The bank board wants Charleston County Council to pay that $353 million difference.
But local leaders say the deadlines, adopted Tuesday by the Infrastructure Bank, will kill the project.
“(Infrastructure Bank members) feel like this project’s gone on too long,” said Department of Transportation Commission chairman Jim Rozier, a member of the bank board.
Rozier added other areas of the state could be eyeing the money set aside for the expansion. “People around the state get pretty jealous of money, and this is a lot of money.”
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, was the only one of seven bank board members to vote against the deadlines, saying they are unneeded.
“If the county doesn’t meet the criteria in the resolution, it could kill the entire project,” Limehouse said.
Bank board chairman Vincent Graham, also of Charleston, said the fate of the I-526 extension now is up to Charleston County leaders.
Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, agreed. “If they want it, they’ll come up with the money.”
In response, Charleston County Council chairman Elliott Summey wrote a letter to the Infrastructure Bank saying its deadlines contradicted an agreement between his county and the bank.
“It is a sad, sad day in South Carolina, when you have a signed, ratified contract with a state agency, and it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” Summey told The State newspaper.
The resolution passed Tuesday by the bank board also requires Charleston County Council to convert its March plan to pay part of the extension’s cost into an ordinance by December 2016.
Summey said Charleston County already has spent $117 million on roads that affect I-526, also called the Mark Clark Expressway. That money counts toward any local costs to extend the interstate, he said.
Now, he added, the bank is threatening to take the county’s money and run away. “This is an absolute money grab for some other project in South Carolina.”
In his letter to the Bank Board, Summey asked the board to reconsider its action within 30 days. Otherwise, he added, “the county will be forced to pursue any and all recourse available to it.”
Asked if the county would sue the state, Summey declined to elaborate.
Conservation groups long have opposed the I-526 project, saying it would result in more development on Johns Island.
Coastal Conservation League head Dana Beach, an I-526 opponent, said there are more effective ways to get people on and off Johns Island. The money the Bank Board has committed to the project could be used better to repair and maintain the state’s existing roads, Beach added.