The Buzz

S.C. agency moves to walk away from Charleston’s I-526 extension

The fate of $420 million slated to be spent to extend Interstate 526 in Charleston County was up in the air Thursday after a state agency moved to abandon the controversial project.

The move – criticized by Charleston politicians and praised by a Charleston-based conservation group – could set off a scramble among other areas of the state looking to land the money for their roads.

The S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank’s board said Charleston did not meet a deadline to come up with a plan to pay its share – $353 million – of the cost of extending I-526, also known as the Mark Clark Expressway.

That deadline was set in December after the projected cost of the road was increased to $773 million.

When approved in 2006, extending the interstate across Johns Island was projected to cost $420 million, an expense to be paid with state money. The interstate now ends in West Ashley.

However, when the cost increased, the Infrastructure Bank’s board told Charleston it would have to pay the roughly $350 million difference. Now, the bank’s board is moving forward with a 60-day window to terminate the project.

Reviving the I-526 extension would require a new application to the Infrastructure Bank, said Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, calling that “a crying shame for the Charleston community and the state of South Carolina.”

Charleston County Council chairman Elliott Summey said his county will study its legal options. He added he will fight to keep every dime of the $420 million in state money pledged to the project in the Lowcountry.

However, the Charleston-based S.C. Coastal Conservation League, which opposes the construction of new roads and bitterly opposed the I-526 extension, applauded the bank’s action.

“Today’s decision opens up funding for much-needed improvements to the existing transportation system” said the league’s Natalie Olson. For example, the money could be spent on a new U.S. 17 flyover or bus transit along the I-26 corridor, Olson said in a statement.

To match the state’s original commitment, Charleston County has spent $117 million on other roads, which likely will be taken into account when deciding where to spend the now-freed-up money, said bank board chairman Vince Graham.

“There’s a great deal of empathy for the length of time this has taken and the mayor’s commitment and his determination,” Graham said, adding he would like to see Charleston County and the city make a new application.

However, other areas of the state could have their eyes on the $420 million in state money once dedicated to the I-526 extension.

Applications now before the bank board include projects in Berkeley and York counties, and a joint application by Richland and Lexington counties and the City of Columbia.

For years, Midlands residents also have dreamed of a fix to Malfunction Junction, the poorly designed and congested interchanges around the intersections of Interstates 20 and 26.

A bonding proposal working its way through the Legislature includes fixing Malfunction Junction. However, lawmakers have yet to pass that proposal and only three days remain in the legislative session.

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope